“I’m not a villain,” says Vic Mensa. It’s a Tuesday afternoon in late September, and the Chicago rapper is calling from L.A., where he’s preparing to join his longtime pal Chance the Rapper at the latter’s Acid Rap 10th anniversary show at Kia Forum. There, Mensa will perform his breakout mixtape INNANETAPE – which also turns 10 this year– in its entirety. The anniversary has him feeling reflective on his career thus far. “I was oftentimes very despised in the music industry,” he admits. “And sure, you got some people that are like, ‘I’m a demon, I’m a savage, I’ll stand on it!’ And I respect that. But that’s not me.”
Vic is ready to make amends. It’s been a weird and not-always smooth past decade for him. He broke onto the scene alongside Chance circa 2013, linked up with Scooter Braun, signed with Roc Nation, released a debut album, championed the downtrodden by sleeping outside with Chicago’s unhoused and joining Sioux Nation water protectors at Standing Rock, dissed the likes of Drake, Lil Yachty and XXXtentacion on wax, was arrested on separate gun and drug charges, got sober, and this past spring, owned up to his mistakes and tribulations in a no-holds-barred freestyle on Sway In The Morning. (Regarding that show-stopping verse, Vic tells GQ he’s “been working on something to go rap on LA Leakers in the vein of the Sway freestyle.”)
Victor, his second full-length LP, finds Mensa staring down his anxieties (“Blue Eyes”), navigating his push-pull with religion (“Sunday Evening Reprise”) and coming to terms with his complex relationship with his native city (“$outhside Story”). Throughout, Vic is a repentant and well-versed and always straightforward narrator. “I’m shedding light on shit that people might have only seen one side of,” he tells GQ. “I’m looking to constantly keep growing. I don’t want to be entrapped by the same thought processes that maybe held me hostage in the past.”
Vic Mensa: For me, to emerge from so much pain and trouble and controversy and darkness, it could only really work in tandem with music. It’s also a labor of love in the truest sense. Because the shit ain’t easy. Neither the creation of the music or the life experience that was required of me to make this music, none of that is smooth sailing. It’s just hard work. Discipline. Focus. Patience. Faith.
Oftentimes I’ll do some things that are outside of that world—maybe a freestyle that’s all about punch lines or a single that’s something more fun—but I associate the making of an album with a real personal upheaval. I was talking to Mick Jenkins yesterday and he likened it to excavation. It’s like mining inside of myself to strike gold. But that doesn’t mean you don’t have to chip away at a million rocks before you find that piece of gold. I have a litmus test almost for what I think is going to be the dopest and hit the hardest. When something gives me shivers, chills while I’m writing it or even brings me to tears—some lines will—then usually that’s when I know I’ve struck upon something.
One hundred percent. That freestyle was a part of the album process, for sure—the same things I’m talking about in the freestyle, I’m talking about in the album. I’m illuminating the multi-dimensional depths and experience that someone might have just flattened into a headline and not had the context of understanding. On the topic of misunderstanding, I’ve always felt misunderstood. I mean, even culturally. Growing up on the South Side of Chicago but being African but also being white in a black community… that’s a perfect storm of misunderstanding. So that’s always existed in a sense.
But even more recently, in a professional sense, I definitely do think that I started to feel very misunderstood and to be seen as a villain. And [I feel] very beloved too by a lot of people—but I think as human beings we’re predisposed to put more weight on hate than love. It was something I wanted to break down. I know I’m not a villain. The things I’ve done in my life are not perfect by any means. But anybody that actually knows me with any type of comprehension knows that I’m the opposite of a villain. My impact on the world has by and large been very positive compared to the negativity that I have indulged in. I’m on a short list of rap artists that have done as much to serve and empower the people as I have. From giving away millions of dollar’s worth of shoes in [Chicago’s] Englewood [neighborhood] to supporting the Native American community at Standing Rock and Palestine and training first responders in the ghettos of Chicago. I’m not a villain. To be seen as one though because of some industry things and mistakes I’ve made, ways I’ve phrased things, was a conflicting experience.
Well, you know what Katt Williams says: if you ain’t got no haters, you’re not doing something right. And if you’ve got five haters this summer you need 10 by December. But at the same time, I think even more than a public perception of me—the things I’m discussing in this album are, how do I act with integrity? How do I recognize what my role has been in all of this? And just realizing that some of the ways that I’ve moved through the world are contradictory and conflicting. That’s oftentimes the case of the Gemini. You can’t really have it both ways: if you want to plant your flag and stand on being a champion of freedom and justice and the things you’ve dedicated your real life to in this last 10 years, then it doesn’t also work for you to run around and be the motherfucker that’s nudging left and right and beg in controversy. Because it casts a shadow of doubt on the validity of how much you mean what you say when you’re standing up on these high ideals.
Coming to understand that, that’s been super powerful for me. Because it helps me to purify my purpose and my direction. That doesn’t mean to be a perfect person and create some facade of moral high ground. It actually means to tear that shit down. It means to be vulnerable, be honest, be human but to be of integrity. To be integrated. Not one day you’re all about positivity and the next day it’s like your gun charge is on TMZ. Figure it out! Which one do you want to be? Do you want to be freedom and March For Our Lives. Or do you want to be in fucking jail with a gun? Which one?
Nah, but they can’t take woke from us. That’s the thing though. The people that have spearheaded this anti-woke movement, they didn’t create woke. Woke is born of civil rights, black artists and activists. Nah. Stay woke.
Man, I started writing that song in 2016. I did ayahuasca for the first time and I was hella depressed. And I was asking “Why do I feel so much pain?” I had this higher voice come to me and say, “I used to want blue eyes. That is the root of pain.” So I started writing that song. But I didn’t have the rest of the words. And then more recently, my aunt in Ghana got skin cancer and then I learned that she had a history of skin bleaching. I was really floored by that. Suddenly I felt like I had the words for the song. That was the only thing I could imagine to do with that heavy of an emotion. It was a song I’d been trying to finish since the idea way back in 2016. Obviously it very explicitly speaks to the condition of African people in a white supremacist society. But I think at the same time, and perhaps even in a broader sense, it’s a message of self-acceptance and self-love to anyone.
I had an interesting conversation with a girl who went to grammar school with me, named Phoebe—she’s a white girl—and she told me that she always thought that I had the most beautiful brown eyes, and that she felt out of place because she had blue eyes. It contextualized the pain that we can feel as children from feeling as if we don’t belong. Albeit from a completely different perspective. She made me realize that so many of us are going through that and it’s not just a product of white supremacy. There are so many different structures. Even my mom telling me when she was a kid—my mom has blonde hair and blue eyes—saying that when she first discovered Seventeen magazine in the 60s it made her so depressed. She developed a really bad negative self-image because she felt she wasn’t skinny and tall like the girls in the magazine. Now you’ve got all these kids growing up in an age of such prevalent plastic surgery who I’m sure are dealing with a psychological comparison to these unrealistic and unattainable ideals of what it means to be beautiful, to be valuable. So I feel like that song really applies—beyond just my own context and the context of an African person—to a person living in this modern society that has so many different convoluted ideas about what it means to be beautiful.
I started practicing Islam when I started making this album—pretty much in tandem. And it’s been beautiful for me. It’s been really inspirational. It’s been a root of discipline that has spread into and out of my life. And it’s my first experience actually being religious. I would say I’ve been a spiritual person, but I was also pretty anti-religious for a long time. I had a lot of issues with a white savior, a white Jesus—it didn’t feel historically accurate to me. Islam has many of the same or parallel pitfalls. And Islam was also given to a lot of African people through slavery. But something I came to learn was whereas I often viewed the religions themselves as being the source of pain and misery, I think my current understanding of it is that human beings are corrupted. Human beings will find a way to be wicked. And they will justify it with something; religion is one of the best cloaks and masks for wicked men. But I don’t think these religions are the basis or genesis of that dark side of human nature.
I mean, look, people will justify their wicked ways through a political party or justify it through a street gang. Human beings are going to find a way to hurt each other, to exploit each other. I’ve come to find a lot of value in religion and going to the mosque and learning about the prophets and the principles and stories that illustrate what they believed. And in studying the Bible there’s so much I’ve taken from it. I can’t imagine a time in which one religion, or one organized religion would encompass everything I believe and that I would just wholeheartedly believe everything that they say. Of course, there are parts of Islam that I don’t resonate with—at least the interpretations of them I’ve received. And there’s plenty of parts of Christianity that I don’t really jam with either. But I no longer feel like those things negate the intrinsic value of those religions. And I’m combining an African spiritual system with anything I’m practicing. So yeah, I pray to Allah and make salat, but I also pray to my ancestors. I also ask them for guidance and for protection and give thanks to them in the same breath. I don’t think that’s necessarily embraced by a lot of interpretations of organized religion but that’s what works for me. I like to take the pieces that apply to my experience and focus on those.
My relationship to Chicago is strong, man. I moved back to Chicago during the pandemic and I started making this album a little while after that. In that song particularly, I wanted to represent the multi-dimensional truths of Chicago, and the South Side of Chicago. It’s a very polarizing place that’s all too often made to seem very one-dimensional. And there’s a lot of fear mongering that is both the norm in media coverage and even in the conversations of the people. So I just wanted to contextualize my experience in the South Side in the midst of everything that’s taken place. So I’m speaking about watching the passing cars, trapping hard, across the street from the mosque, down a block from where Farrakhan lives and the Nation of Islam and cars bumping the Fugees— revolutionary conscious music—and rapid-fire Uzis and all these things happening at one time. Because the South Side of Chicago is a scapegoat for a lot of America’s issues. And they love to point to Chicago and act as if they didn’t create this storm. Like it wasn’t man-made and manufactured.
At the same time, they gloss over a the positive contributions of the South Side of Chicago: jazz and art and literature and sports and theory and religion and so many things. My relationship to Chicago at this point in time has grown. I’ve grown up. I don’t move the same way I moved. Even being sober I think has changed my relationship with Chicago a lot because I don’t even find myself in the situations where shit gets dangerous in the same way. Outside the club when it closes, you know what I mean? (Laughs). Shit can happen at any time and any place in Chicago, but the possibility that you’ll be mixed up in something is greatly reduced if you ain’t got kick-it tickets. If you ain’t aimlessly searching for the next move. So my relationship with Chicago feels a lot more healthy these days, because my relationship with myself is a lot more healthy.
Nah nah. I was saying the Yeezy’s I got on are like my opposition—they’re not coming outside. Just saying that I’m wearing some unreleased and never-seen Yeezy’s. No Kanye disses for me, man! [laughs] I know there’s a lot going on, but I will always have the utmost love for Kanye and for the role that he’s played in my life. I can’t speak to everyone’s else’s experience, but I can only speak to mine and say that, yeah, I love Kanye. He’s not a perfect fucking person by any means.. I think of all people I would understand that sometimes when you’re trying to go for a difficult truth, sometimes the way you go about it can miss the mark. That’s what I learned making this album—oftentimes my message was completely overshadowed by my delivery. And people entirely lost the point of what I was trying to shed light on or speak about.
I wouldn’t say I’m a different person. I would say I’m the same person in a different season. I listen to that music, and some of the perspectives I had on that album, I don’t resonate with as much. But by and large, the things that matter to me on that album still matter to me now. I love the lyrical content of that album. And the intention behind it. I would hope that I’ve grown and have a different sense of understanding of myself. The biggest tragedy is a motherfucker staying the same for the next 20, 30, 40 years. I’m looking to constantly keep growing. I don’t want to be entrapped by the same thought processes that maybe held me hostage in the past. I do want to be inspired by the same positive spirit and inquisitive spirit and revolutionary mindedness of that. But I also don’t want to be caught up in the same thoughts of suicide and entertaining the shit that didn’t serve me.
I do like it. Cause like I said, I’m still the same person I was. So if that time and that music was impactful to somebody and they took something of value from it, or continue to take something of value from it, then that’s important to me. That means a lot to me. It can get a little bit old when listeners or fans are stuck on the past like that. But at the same time, I do my best to not be swayed too much by what someone on the Internet says — good or bad. So if it’s love, then I appreciate it. If it’s hate or it’s criticism or ‘You were better then’—man, if I let that shit run my life I would have no space to hear myself think.
It’s just the culture of where we’re at. Don’t mistake fandom and fanfare for real love. And don’t place all your value or your weight in that, or you will be disappointed. It’s great to appreciate people saying great things about you, but ultimately I’ve just seen it go so far to either side and seen people really praise me and then turn and seen the same people completely denigrate me and my value as a human being. At the end of the day, I can’t really do it for them. I’ve gotta do it for me. I can’t let my sanity or my value be tied up in whether or not people fuck with me.
Something I’ve learned is that it can be hard for fans, too. A fan’s experience is something that you don’t really understand sometimes, as an artist. To be a fan of an artist that everybody is hating on–it’s difficult. You try to tell people “I like this artist” and if the word of the day is that “We ain’t fucking with them,” people make fun of you. That shit is tough for kids in this day and age specifically. In a time when somebody can just humiliate you in front of your whole school on Twitter easily, it can be difficult. So I get why if you go through a rough time as an artist, people who had love for you might just fall silent. They don’t wanna get caught up in the crossfire. But I ain’t gonna lie—I don’t read that shit no more.
We’re definitely gonna do it again. And again and again. We’re working on it in Jamaica right now. We’ve got some new ideas about the dates that we’ll be announcing soon. Definitely expect to see the Black Star Line Festival [again], in multiple parts of the world.
I’m really just diving back into new material. A lot of times I hear artists say that they need to step away from the studio and go live and gain some life experience to speak about it through the music. But I don’t really feel that way. I feel like I got 10,000 lives of experience in me already.