Vic Mensa has been in the game for quite some time now. At the age of 16, he released his debut solo mixtape, Straight Up, which eventually led to his inclusion in the 2014 XXL Freshman Class. Since then, Vic has released several solo projects, in addition to frequent collaborations with Chance the Rapper and Kanye West—including a Grammy nomination as a co-writer on Kanye’s “All Day.”
Now, at 30, Vic Mensa has garnered a substantial amount of knowledge and insight—however, this hasn’t made him jaded in the slightest. In fact, it’s only bolstered his inclination to introspect and reflect, something which sears profoundly in his music and writing. In addition to music, Vic has written various essays on issues such as gun control, prison reform, and the Israel-Palestine conflict. He has also created Save Money Save Life, a Black and Indigenous-led nonprofit that empowers people of color and pushes for change through the arts.
Through internal mediation, a process he has become fluent in, Vic has focalized on something profound: the inherent complexity of being, or in his words, “If we can’t be humans of complexity, then I don’t know how we can even think to address the things that are important to us.” Because he believes this to be foundational to being, it necessarily becomes foundational to the art he makes as well. However, as Vic insightfully points out during our conversation: contemporary consumers have a propensity for immediacy, making the general populous reactionary, an approach which undermines the value of complexity and the indispensable process of unpacking such multilayered works of art.
Regardless of such tendencies, his latest album titled VICTOR does not shy away from such complexity. Vic aims to chronicle his introspection, which espouses that the only way for upward movement is through inward reflection. Explaining the core of VICTOR, “I wouldn’t say that it’s an expressly political album,” he shares. “It’s very personal, but in that way, the personal is always inevitably political. It’s far more internally faced than being so full of broad sweeping social commentary.”
FLAUNT spoke with Vic Mensa about the specificities of such personal reflection, being two years sober, and his foray into fine art.
You’ve been in the public eye for a while now. Considering that there’s this innate human desire to feel loved and accepted by everyone, or almost everyone, it must feel weird to be in a position where people are more inclined to point fingers and talk about you without knowing you. How do you grapple with that dilemma and what does it mean to you?
That’s an amazing question, and something I’ve actually been meditating on a lot in the past few days. I had a profound realization in the form of a question to myself: With whom do you choose to place your faith? Do I choose to place my faith in man or do I choose to place my faith in God?
This question arose because I was deciding to not be swayed or moved by a disparaging comment somebody made about me on the internet. I had to break it down to myself critically to really make it resonate with my bones.
The problem is that Man and God say very different things. Man may tell me, ‘You can never succeed, you can never achieve, you are done for, you’ll never ascend. God on the other hand will tell me that if I have just a mustard seed of faith in him, I can move this mountain from here into the ocean.
So I had to make a decision to not put my faith in fickle people. And instead to have my faith in something that is of a higher power, something that is of a more significant strength. And the truth is, people are going to have opinions and when you have a position of visibility, that will magnify and increase.
And I think the pursuit for me is to not be so swayed by either good or bad commentary. To really be rooted in my belief in myself, my belief in God, in my principles, my intention, my purpose. Don’t drink the Kool-Aid, whether it’s good or bad.
It’s interesting that you’re not interested in good commentary either. Why is that?
I guess I strive to move from a state of equilibrium. I’ve seen how up and down the world’s opinion of you can be, I’ve known immense praise and at the same time, I’ve known the sting of the world’s criticism. So I think to put too much weight in either one is damaging to my equilibrium. I don’t need people’s validation, I’m a human being so, of course, it feels good and I do innately seek it, but I’m training myself to not be too concerned with it, because it’s fickle.
Those same that once stood with you will see a headline and throw you out. I remember reading some articles about Kendrick (Lamar) when his album came out. And you know, Kendrick is another person who obviously has been a champion of the progressive, intellectual, and leftist youth culture. But when his album came out, he got into controversies around some of his features and the song “Auntie Diaries.” I read a scathing article saying that Kendrick is lost and he’s not the savior we wanted.
But in his album he says “I’m not your savior.” And I just thought it was really interesting because from my perspective, Kendrick was far from obtuse. He was taking complex stances, and if we can’t just be humans, if we can’t be human beings of complexity, then I don’t know how we can even think to address the things that are important to us.
Totally. Kendrick is not someone who’s ever dumbed his ideas down for the sake of public acceptance—and I feel the same about you and your music. Within the nucleus of a really good piece of art or music, there’s an abundance of complexity that amounts to a realized work. And not only is it up to the viewer to listen, or read, or watch, but to consume the work in its totality, to dive into it holistically.
It’s gotta be multilayered, I mean, that’s all of our experiences. I just would like to appeal to us as a people and to myself. With I say, to not be so quick to write off a human being.
That’s something I’ve really had to learn. To not be so quick to write someone off because something appears to be misaligned with a part of your value system. People are so much more than that, and there’s context and meaning and purpose. Very few people wake up in the morning and plan to be a bad person.
Everybody feels like they have a justification. And action versus intention is different, but I do think that intention has a role to play in the assessment of any human being’s impact.
This evolution of openness that you’re speaking of seems to be in direct tandem with the equilibrium you mentioned earlier. When did the journey towards achieving that balance become a goal, and what steps have you taken to achieve such?
It’s always gonna be a work in progress, but realizing that helped me a lot. I was always seeking a magic fix. Whether it be a pill, or a powder, or a girl, or a fight. It’s cool that this album is coming out right now because I’m about to be two years sober, and I’m rooted into this journey that I’m on. Going sober has been a super revelatory experience for me in that I’ve had to raw dog my emotions, and that’s given me a lot of perspective in facing things head-on.
I’ve always been into meditation and studied Eastern philosophy for a long time, but coming from a sober perspective, it’s downloaded much more because I had to lean into those things to take the place of what drugs or sex was trying to do for me. And once I decided I’m not going in those directions at all, then I started needing the meditation.
Does making music also feel like a worthy substitute? In other words, has it been a form of therapy?
Music has always been a form of therapy to me. Music is one of the main ways I process emotions and experiences and experience catharsis and release shit. But at the same time, for me, music is a reflection of my internal state. So if I’m doing well, then my music is gonna start to reflect that. If I’m fucked up, it’s hard for me to even make music. I’ve always felt like I needed a little bit of objective distance, like in the midst of the most depression, it’ll just be this vicious cycle where I’ll be too mentally distressed to really create. Then I’ll be doubly mentally distressed because I’ll be like, I can’t even create. I think anxiety is just a snapshot of madness.
It’s just a sample of insanity. And the problem is that you have too many thoughts bombarding you for you to handle at once. I used to be like, “Imma take this drug and I’m gonna need to make something great,” and if something great didn’t happen in that moment, I’d be really hard on myself. It’d really shake me and really stick with me.
In making this album, it was more so like, I’m gonna show up at this same time every day, and just keep doing this thing until I make something great, as opposed to like, trying to take this magic pill to put me at the top of the hill.
A structured routine must have been so helpful in achieving that balance because even if you do have bad days, there’s always the hope that the next one will be able to compensate for that.
It helps a lot, man, I honestly really prefer it. A structured routine of dedication and persistence is applicable to everything in life. I can apply the same principle that I apply to writing an amazing song in that fashion, to building a business from square one, to a meditation practice, to a healthy relationship with my girl, or even to a relationship with my fans. Applying those principles of showing up with consistency and with intention can work for everything.
That’s something I really admire about your approach. It feels very holistic, and I mean that both in terms of your philosophy going into the act of making and living, but also in your command over so many different musical genres, and the various realms you tap into outside of music. Like that show you curated last year for Kavi Gupta Gallery. How did that happen and what was that process like?
My homegirl is an amazing visual artist and sculptor named Kennedy Yanko. She was represented by Kavi Gupta at the time, and she was in Chicago curating a show for the gallery.
It wasn’t necessarily her forte, but she was just doing it. In going to that show I just realized how fun and free the association in fine art is. You can make really broad conceptual associations in fine art, and in that moment, that felt right to me.
I was studying Frantz Fanon at the time and this Nigerian philosopher named Bayo Akomolafe, and just applying those ideas of the deconstruction of the concept of race and the impacts of colonialism. Just applying that to a loose framework for an artist to work from.
Those concepts feel both theoretically and practically topical to your own work, were you able to garner inspiration from that process and apply it to music?
I definitely think a lot of those ideas show up in music for me. But something I’m working on is breaking free of some of the mental barriers I view music, in that maybe sometimes it’s easier for me to imagine a really amorphous concept in a space of painting, or even in writing prose or an essay. Then when I start to write a song or a rap, the abstraction seems to become a little bit harder for me.
There definitely is a dissonance— complete experimentation in the fine art sector is encouraged, whereas in music, abstraction can often lead to one being categorized into a hyper-niche genre and effectively eschewed from the popular mainstream. It must feel weird to oscillate from one to the other in the span of a year.
Yeah sometimes it is, honestly. As I’m making new ideas, I’m just striving to break down some of those barriers within myself first. That’s when it really gets very interesting. When you can create with less separation of genres and acceptable ideas, and then make people gravitate towards that. And if you can make that mainstream, then you really just went David Bowie. You can make some strange and out-there shit, but in the mainstream. That’s the sweet spot.
Photographed by Roderick Ejuetami
Styled by Mui-Hai Chu
Written by Izzy Einstein
Flaunt Film: Alexander Moura
Styling Assistants: Erin Zhang and Nasir Cummings
Production Assistant: Khami Auerbach
Location: The Moxy DTLA