Chicago native Vic Mensa made a strong impression on me (and many others) in 2013 with his self-released solo debut Innanetape, subsequently signing with Roc Nation. Over the years, he proved one of the most compelling and provocative artists in hip-hop with projects like There's Alot Going On, Hooligans, and 93 Punx. Amid his creative endeavors and risk-taking artistry, he's built a well-deserved reputation as an activist, railing against mass incarceration, ICE, and numerous other forms of systemic racism as it manifests in American life. Some of this work now happens through his non-profit organization SaveMoneySaveLife. His latest musical projects are a pair of EPs, the V TAPE and the I TAPE, the first two parts of a planned trilogy. I had the chance to speak with Mensa by phone this past Friday, during which we discussed his career, his craft, and his commitment to racial justice.
How's it going?
I’m in Chicago right now. It's beautiful today. About to set up my home studio. You're in Queens, right? I read that Kool G Rap used to stay somewhere over by you.
Yeah, we got a lot of that around here, a lot of history here.
Kool G Rap was that n**** though.
Lately we've been having a lot of conversations about giving people their flowers. And we need to big him up so much more than we do. He birthed so many people's styles and was just so ill.
Word. Stupid ill. I found G Rap through researching Nas’ style and his origins. It’s funny like that, that you will find out about certain maybe unsung heroes, so to speak, by their progeny or the people that they've influenced.
It's sort of like when a younger 2Pac fan finds out about Shock G.
Rest in peace.
Let’s talk about your last two EPs, the V TAPE and the I TAPE. The former focuses a lot on your story, while the latter seeks to give more voice to others. How important was it to you to use your platform in those distinct ways, expressing that mix of the personal and political in that fashion?
I can't say that I particularly set out to be thematic with either project, but they both took shape in that way. So when I was working on V TAPE, I realized that I was writing a lot about rebirth, you know, and that I was addressing things that have been said, the stones that have been left unturned, storylines that had not resolved in the eyes of the public. So it just took shape that I was really speaking about rebirth. And when I started making the I TAPE—which was while was making the V TAPE, like some of those records I made at the same time—it was just taking shape as being, like you said, more external and telling the stories of people around me and how I was involved, but less introspective. I think everything I do is always going to be introspective, but it took shape as being themed around freedom. And so that's how I looked at it.
In each project, I would say that it was very important to me to address or to approach my messaging and my angle with intentionality. So when I'm talking about rebirth and I'm talking about personal struggles, I wanted to be very vulnerable with it. I wanted to be as vulnerable, or more so, than I had ever been, and really find strength in letting people in. And then, when I'm speaking of freedom on the I TAPE, I also wanted to really paint this picture of a world beyond the words and make it understood through my music that I'm really living this shit. I'm really doing this shit in real life.
The vulnerability is so clear, especially on songs like “2HONEST” and obviously on “REBIRTH. You shared so much of yourself. And especially for those who've been following you all this time, to hear these stories and to get this context of your pain is a lot to take in, hearing you crack and cry. Do you feel catharsis by putting stuff like this out, in saying these things out loud?
Yeah, 1000%. Doing a record like “2HONEST” was just one of my favorite things that I've done. When I make something that is very real and expresses maybe deeply repressed, deeply painful, or just deeply significant emotions, it tends to make me emotional. When I'm writing a record like “2HONEST” and I’m weeping like that, I know that I’m writing the right song. So much of my sense of self and identity, for better or for worse, is tied up in creativity that, you know, when I am able to express myself like that, it's hugely cathartic. It really helps me to process in ways and shield and contextualize my own pain and my own struggles.
As somebody with a lifelong relationship with depression and anxiety and suicide and just mental health concerns, I kinda have to be real about it and try to be as open and honest as possible, because it helps me to see things in perspective. When I talk about finding out that I was suicidal at age five, it helps me feel blessed and to feel good that I'm still alive at this point. Clearly I've been dealing with things that lead people down a different path and yet I've been able to have a meaningful life and inspire people and impact the world. I think about people like Anthony Bourdain. I don't know what his story was like, but I imagine he was probably dealing with torment in his mind for much of it. That shit can catch up with you, so I put that shit in the music just to remind myself to be grateful that I made it this far.
You used the word meaningful in terms of living life. And in listening to both of these projects connected to each other, it’s refreshing because you’re doing something very purposeful with this life that you have while you deal with this relationship with depression and anxiety that you've described. I’m specifically thinking about the track “MOOSA,” and these intertwined stories of James Warren and Moosa, like that impossible serendipity of them ending up in the same correctional facility and what happened next. With that incredible story, do you see it as just coincidence and luck or something bigger, like a message from the universe?
I definitely see that as a message from the universe, something of cosmic significance. That experience taught me the power of faith and how important it is to have the courage to believe in the impossible if you want to create a future worth living in. Even when that whole experience was going down, I remember at certain moments just feeling like things were lining up. And, you know, my personal life may not have been lining up. I was in the middle of industry blackballing and death threats and constant hate all over the internet, shit like that—and deep in extreme mental health therapies. But I'm working with my homie who’s in prison and, you know, I'm still privileged next to what he has going on. And I remember when Moosa got sent to the same prison as James, I knew something was coming together, some type of stars were aligned. I didn't have the courage at that moment to even dare to dream that I was going to be able to help Moosa come home 12 years early. That scenario, that entire situation taught me that, man, how important it is to be able to believe in the things you can't see.
I knew I had to write a song about it. I already had started writing songs about it before Moosa came home; just when they were both locked up, I was writing songs about it. But I had a good time writing about it, because I was thinking about Nas. I’ve always been a huge student of Nas and the intricacy of his storytelling. And I was just like, man, it’s ill ‘cause I'm on my Nas flow storytelling, but I'm telling a real story. A lot of Nas’ favorite stories of mine are like Mafia fantasies, you know what I'm saying? I was thinking about doing that same type of intricate depth that's also storytelling that exists in like Immortal Technique's “Dance With The Devil,” you know what I mean? There's a lot of these records—not that all of them are fiction, but many of those seminal, masterful hip-hop stories are fictional. I've always had a good time creating those things out of completely real life events.
I want to talk a little bit more about the clemency aspect of this song’s story, because obviously when we deal with things like the American carceral state, we've got so many these challenges around it. After COVID hit, did you anticipate that there would be opportunities for clemency, albeit complicated ones, that would arise, for Moosa or otherwise?
No. No, I didn’t. When I learned that that was happening, I reached out to some of the right people, a group called Uptown People's Law Center in Chicago on Moosa’s behalf. And he came home three days later. I will say that, from the dawn of the pandemic, we were calling for the immediate release of all prisoners. That was our angle, like, we demand that all prisoners in Cook County Jail—and every prison in Illinois and otherwise—be immediately released because of COVID-19. That's going to be the abolitionist point of view or platform, which I subscribe to. Because like I said, I feel like it's important to be able to visualize and believe and have courage to reach for things that seem absolutely impossible. That shit seemed impossible to me. I didn't really know about clemency. I don't really have experience with that. I mean, I knew Moosa had a clemency in, but I didn't know about it. Even his lawyer, his clemency lawyer, said that she'd been doing this shit 10, 15 years and it's the only one that's ever worked.
It's wild because, here in New York, cash bail reform went into effect in January of 2020, and I wrote this piece for Vibe about how people need to get involved in protecting bail reform and the elimination of cash bail. And by the time COVID hit in March, shortly thereafter we had Governor Cuomo here who really fought tooth and nail to keep people behind bars. Do you think that these clemency decisions and policy changes happening in various places around the country, especially in the wake of COVID, have the potential to lead us more towards better and humane solutions for reducing mass incarceration?
Obviously I think that far more clemencies should be granted. Overall, I just don't believe in permanent punishment for human beings. I don't think that it is of any benefit to anyone, not to the people who are victims in a situation and not to the people who are the offenders, or the families of each, or the communities that they belong to. There's a book that I'm sure you've heard of it, The Prophet [by] Kahlil Gibran. He speaks about crime and punishment, in his poetic way that I'm sure I’ll butcher. He says something to the effect of, if you are to judge and punish another, you have to examine yourself, But also you have to acknowledge that most people that may be in a situation as the person committing a crime have been a victim of a crime. And when we're talking about Black people in America, man, we’re talking about just like an absolutely victimized community. The way that the people are discarded by society and so many Black people—Black men and women, trans men and women—are discarded by society and just consigned to a life in prison, it takes into no account the destruction that has been enacted upon them and their families and their communities and how it perpetuates itself.
Obviously I support clemencies, and I don't support fuckin’ Cuomo. His creepy ass should be the one behind bars. You know what I'm saying? It be them type of motherfuckers that want to judge when it's like, fam, you violating left and right though. You just happened to be a white man with power, but you are violating people too. And you got the gall and the nerve to hard-nose about keeping n***** in prison.
I want to go back to the I TAPE, because there's so much in it, even for just an EP. As a longtime listener, I’m impressed with the songwriting and the lyricism on this project—both of these projects—in the wordplay and the way you’re landing the metaphors. How do you feel like your style or approach to writing has evolved over the years?
You know, I feel like in doing this more recent music is, in a lot of ways gone back. At least my process has gone back to kind of how it was when I was a kid. I used to spend hours upon hours and count the hours in my mom's basement just writing rhymes—sometimes sober, sometimes high, sometimes drunk, just writing rhymes. When I was about 18 and I was doing Innanetape, I was also that way. I was just in my rehearsal space, hours and hours writing rhymes. I was on a lot of drugs at that point in time, but still the solitude of it was the basis of the process. And then over the years, my process kind of changed and I really only made songs or wrote rhymes in the studio with other people and made all the beats on the scratch. I was very focused on the hooks, you know what I'm saying? And when I started doing these projects [V TAPE and I TAPE], I really just removed almost everything. I haven't made much of the beat; I only made like one beat on each project. More than that, I didn't spend a lot of time making the beats. On other projects of mine, I usually make about one beat of it that's like really my beat, but I work on all the beats constantly. I didn't really do that this time around. I really just focused on verses, just writing raps. That's the more difficult part for me, but also that's where my strength is. That’s what I really do exceptionally.
I find that when I'm at my best, many of my metaphors will take the form of metaphor as opposed to simile. When I was doing this stuff and I would catch really dope moments, I found myself saying something like, I know the killers well, no Free Willy / They make a fiasco outta you for some free chili. It's got a bunch of metaphors and shit, but I didn't have to stay on this-like-that, you know what I'm saying? I find that when it's more coded like that, sometimes it's a little bit more high level. The process of it all is just been staying in the lab and picking up the pen day-in and day-out. I write a million songs and nobody hears, a million rhymes. I started writing rhymes again and making these projects, writing a rhyme to no beat on some paper. I got a bunch of notebooks full of random fucking verses that I'll never do anything with, all just in a pursuit of a return to form.
It's funny, ‘cause we talked about Nas before and this feels like that sort of “Book Of Rhymes” approach. It’s a tradition that you're actively part of as you're working through your process, which is wonderful.
I started fucking around with a little “Book Of Rhymes” track the other day, actually. I was flipping through all these different rhymes and I'm like, I was actually saying some hot shit over here.
So we have the V TAPE and we have the I TAPE. What, if anything, can you tell me about the C TAPE?
I'm just having a little bit more fun with it. The subject matter is not so heavy. I’ve really been playing around with the flow more, playing around more with some of the rapid fire flows I used to do, more off kilter, just dancing with the flow more.
Vic Mensa's V TAPE and I TAPE EPs are out now on Roc Nation Records, available wherever music is streamed or sold. For more information on SaveMoneySaveLife, please visit their website.