It's early July, and Vic Mensa is spending his Saturday at a studio in Chelsea, soundchecking songs off The Autobiography, his forthcoming LP. Tonight, he'll perform them at Full Moon Fest, a self-described "boutique festival" on Governor's Island. On this slow afternoon his crew has divided into two groups: those who are adjusting the sound, and those who are looking at their phones. Even Mensa keeps his eyes on a screen as he raps the lyrics to his power ballad "Rage." It's not the most energetic performance, but the song is so effective – and the speakers so loud – that by the end nearly everyone in the room is singing quietly along, heads still down.
When Mensa's engineer Papi Beatz gestures thumbs up, a pair of skaters jump from their chairs. They've allotted this time in their Full Moon set for fingerboard and fidget-spinner tricks. Papi Beatz adds a note to the tentative setlist, which also pairs Mensa's songs with their corresponding keys. Every song is in a minor key.
The Autobiography isn't exactly sunny – especially when compared against recent records by his friend Chance the Rapper and former bandmate Donnie Trumpet – yet it's much more positive, more of a relief, than those keys might suggest.
"There were certain things I was able to tap into on this album that I had never really been able to vocalize," Mensa says, "certain thought processes and emotions that I had never really been able to translate through words."
The Autobiography tells stories that are dark and sometimes confusing, fragments about loss, drugs and everyday struggle. But its focus, Mensa's ability to turn these experiences into a long and complex arc, also suggests a feeling as if he's sharing a secret that's been caught inside him. He describes the album as a process of rediscovery.
"Anybody who's dealt with addiction and depression knows that sometimes they can make you forget who you are and kind of bring out a different person, somebody you don't know as well," he says. "I just wanted to make music that really spoke to the true me, me as a 12-year-old kid falling in love with hip-hop."
He points to "Down for Some Ignorance," a hard cut that features Chief Keef and Joey Purp, as one of the most representative songs on the LP. "I didn't set out to be metaphorical, you know what I mean? That has its time and place, but I wasn't trying to like describe the stars using the bars or something. I was trying to fucking tell my story – tell my stories."
Mensa, 24, was born in Chicago and grew up in Hyde Park, the son of a Ghanaian father and white mother. "I did watch from a window of a gated community," he says, quoting one of the album's lyrics. "I was across the street from Section 8, and also down the street from Obama."
It was "a luckier situation than good friends of mine from a block away," he says. Caught between two worlds, he learned how to think critically about both. "That gave me a real disdain for inequity and injustice because I would simultaneously be on both sides of it. On one hand I'd be privileged in certain ways that other people in my neighborhood or other friends of mine might not be. But then when I'm outside my house, I get treated the same as everybody else – get treated as a nigga, by the police or whatever, in school or whatever."
Mensa began to focus on music when he was 15 and, a year later, he joined the band Kids These Days, rapping over their loose indie rock. Their LP, Traphouse Rock, released to the internet in 2012, was produced by Jeff Tweedy and features a verse from a young Chance the Rapper.
"I'm not one of the people who started rapping because of the music videos and chains and bitches and flashy shit and the pursuit of dollar bills," he says. "That's a lot of people's reality, but for me, I started making this rap music because it was a way for me to analyze this tumultuous world that I grew up in. And for me to cope with things in my own life and pain and struggle."
Since then Mensa has since worked with Kanye West, Skrillex, Pharrell and Flume. But when asked about the collaborator from whom he learned most, Mensa immediately defers to No I.D., who, as executive producer of The Autobiography, helped focus the LP.
"I didn't want to rap on the type of beats that everyone's rapping on all the time, like three-note trap beats and shit," says Mensa. No I.D., 22 years Mensa's senior, made sure that the record had enough bounce to sound contemporary. The pair even left room for Weezer, who play a loose version of the bridge from their song "The Good Life" on "Homewrecker." That came from Papi Beatz, who introduced Mensa to Pinkerton, now his favorite Weezer LP, during a drive through L.A.
When his manager announces that it's time to ride to the ferry, Mensa puts a denim jacket covered in patches and safety pins and prepares to exit.
With The Autobiography behind him, will Mensa keep the introspective feel in his next LP?
"It's definitely not something I'm turning my back on," he says, choosing his words carefully. "Right now I'm really just focused on getting better and approaching my next album with a new set of skills and some new angles. But it's still very personal, very honest. It's just real, you know? That's one thing I can't lose: I can't lose the realness in my music."