Exclusive: Vic Mensa Talks Injustice, Debut Album, and Jay Z & Beyoncé
Vic Mensa packed his “Back with a Vengeance” show in Los Angeles on Thursday (Aug. 4) with a series of powerful moments.
One of the most memorable happened at the end of “16 Shots,” an ode to Laquan McDonald, the 17-year-old who was shot and killed by police in Chicago last year. While fans heard about McDonald’s death, Vic fell to the ground as if he had been shot. He stayed there, lying motionless. In a word, it was chilling.
A couple of hours before the show, as the sun was setting on L.A.’s famed Sunset Strip, the 23-year-old Roc Nation spitter sat backstage at The Roxy, getting his hair cut. There, he spoke exclusively with Rap-Up about “16 Shots” and his views on injustice in this country. After all, this was just hours after he says LAPD officers harassed him in nearby Beverly Hills.
But beyond social issues, Vic also discussed other topics that have surrounded his buzzing career of late, including his relationships with Kanye West, Jay Z, and Beyoncé, who have collaborated with Mensa and/or taken him under their megastar wings. Plus, he opened up about his highly-anticipated debut album, which might just feature more of these powerful moments he keeps creating.
Where were you when you wrote “16 Shots” and where are you today when you think of that?
“16 Shots” specifically was inspired by my time in the streets of Chicago after the murder of Laquan McDonald by a Chicago police officer, Jason Van Dyke. In those rallies, I was hearing “16 shots” because that’s how many times they shot Laquan. I just had “and we buckin’ back” in my mind as a hook idea. I sat on it for a while. That was in the fall of 2015. Then, in February of 2016, when I made the music that’s on There’s Alot Going On, I was writing a lot of records and Papi Beatz had this skeleton of a beat that had marching band drums on it. It made me think about when we were marching through the streets so I just took myself to that place and described everything that I saw and felt. It was in the moment, but also a record I’ve wanted to make for eight years or something because it’s forever relevant to my life. I’ve been getting harassed and fucked with by police since I was 11 or 12 years old. Even today, we were in Beverly Hills. I went and spent a couple bands at Barneys and we get pulled over four blocks away by like three squad cars and they took us all out because they were saying we stole something. They had us sitting out there for an hour, trying to search the vehicle. So “16 Shots” is a record I’ve been wanting to make for years.
“I’ve been getting harassed and fu**ed with by police since I was 11 or 12 years old”
With that said, there were certain things I said on that record — sentiments that obviously a lot of people feel as is understandable having been beaten down and murdered by police since slavery — and some of those things kind of came true in some dangerous ways with what happened in Dallas and Baton Rouge. Really, my position in it was just as somebody speaking from the heart, not somebody who is waking up in the morning trying to be violent towards police officers. That’s police officers waking up in the morning trying to be violent towards young black men. We don’t leave the house like, “I hope I can shoot the police today.” But they do wake up trying to meet a quota: “I’m gonna drag ni**as out of their houses, out of their cars, blow their brains out next to their baby mama.” Those are things that they wake up in the morning with almost intent to do. So the things I was saying was really just resistance, less than having a mindset geared towards violence, it was a mindset bent on active resistance.
The cops that pulled us out of the car today were saying we stole some shit from a store in Beverly Hills. Obviously, we didn’t steal anything. They didn’t know what the fuck they thought we stole, asking us to search the vehicle. I’m like, “What the fuck? You think I’m gonna let you search my vehicle when you don’t even know what the fuck you’re looking for?” The whole time, you can see on my Snapchat, them trying to tell me, “We’re just doing our job. You’re the one with this attitude.” I’m like, “Yeah, I got a motherfuckin’ attitude. You bitchass ni**as have been on my ass since I was a shorty. Don’t fuckin’ talk to me if you don’t have your facts prepared.” If you don’t have your shit together, I’m not trying to hear that shit. Fuck the police.
“Shades of Blue” adds another layer of injustice that you touch on with There’s Alot Going On. What was the process behind that song?
I went to Flint, Michigan in February for a benefit concert and it was really dope being there to experience the energy of the people. I had the first couple of lines of that song ever since I heard about what was going on, but once I went down there, I sampled Stevie Wonder closing out the show. Then, when I went home the next day, I wrote the record. I like to take inspiration from real life situations so sometimes something will happen and I’ll write a record about it that day or the next day and that’s what “Shades of Blue” was like.
You were on “The Nightly Show” talking about Justin Timberlake and cultural appropriation. Do you think you were misunderstood? Can you clarify that situation?
I just felt that my comments were compartmentalized to seem as if it was about Justin Timberlake when it was really about cultural appropriation. They asked me about Justin Timberlake so the people who were at the show saw that. They took away a sense of my feelings about cultural appropriation in general. When all the online media outlets got a hold of it, all they did was make it a headline so they didn’t really have the context to it, just saying I’m attacking Justin Timberlake or something when I wasn’t attacking Justin Timberlake. But if you see, Justin Timberlake ended up tweeting something about Alton Sterling or something [about] Black Lives Matter the next week. However it goes, I think my point got across but that’s just how the internet is. They’ll just take something that you say that is a bigger idea and break it down to divert the focus from your real message to make it something that is controversial.
They flew me out to L.A. last year to work on his album. The first day I met ‘Ye, “Wolves” was pretty much the first song he played me. That was the first time I met him and I recorded “Wolves” that night. I showed it to him the next day, he liked it, but I didn’t know it was gonna end up being on [The Life of Pablo]. Then, when the fashion show happened, I got a call like an hour before, asking me to clear the record. The first time I heard it was at the [Yeezy Season 3] show. That happened, we did “SNL,” Kanye’s album didn’t come out for a long time. The Frank Ocean part already existed. I think it was probably a Frank Ocean thing. It is what it is. I didn’t like not being on it, but obviously everybody else didn’t like me not being on it either. And you know Kanye’s album process is very unique and way scattered. It’s off the wall so you never really know what the fuck.
“Kanye’s album process is very unique and way scattered. It’s off the wall so you never really know what the fu**k”
Let’s talk about your music. After There’s Alot Going On, what can fans expect from your debut album?
Lyrically, the records that I have for my album take after subject matter and delivery of the song “There’s Alot Going On” a lot. There’s a lot of really personal stories and social context within them but it’s more about me. It’s really poignantly personal, very vulnerable, and real. It’s all real content.
“My album is really poignantly personal, very vulnerable, and real. It’s all real content”
Who are some guests and producers that you can reveal?
Papi Beatz on production always. I’ve got a record with The-Dream that’s crazy. Rivers Cuomo from Weezer. It’s off-the-wall and unexpected collabs. There’s Mike Dean production. Me production. A lot of me production.
How did the collaboration with Rivers Cuomo come about?
I made a beat where I sampled a Weezer song and somehow, through Smoko Ono, I ended up in the studio with Rivers and he fucking loved it. He ended up putting vocals on it. After that, he sent me a track of him playing guitar singing. I had to flip that and make that another song.
“I’ve heard a little bit of some Hov shit and it’s fresh as f**k, but I can’t say anything about anything else”
You have a close relationship with Jay Z and Beyoncé. What are they like? Any chance of a collaboration?
They’re just smart people, really good people. That’s something I find as I meet more people in this industry: some of the top dogs are the kindest and in a sense most humble. A lot of people feel themselves when they don’t really have a right to. Hov and Beyoncé are people that I’ve seen, on mad occasions, just be real cool to people that they don’t know. Beyoncé has that queen personality where she makes people feel comfortable. Well, I mean, she probably makes people feel mad uncomfortable because they’re super fans, but she’s super cool to people that I’ve seen her interact with and she always has been really nice to me. As far as music, all I can say is that Beyoncé’s tour and her album are amazing. I’ve heard a little bit of some Hov shit and it’s fresh as fuck, but I can’t say anything about anything else.
–Words and photos by Andres Tardio