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Vic Mensa: up on his luck

Chicago's most diverse new rapper wants to be Pharrell with bars. He takes us on a wild night out around London

Vic wears Pony Rothco Jacket by Keep Up; grey hoodie by Trapstar; white tshirt by Replay; black jeans by Lyle & Scott and trainers Vic's own 

Standing shirtless in a South London hallway, Chicago rapper Vic Mensa’s Still Alive tattoo nestles under his brand new 1993 etching, which pops out boldy against the rest of the faded inkings that lace his flesh. The numerals represent the year of his birth two decades prior. Having just turned 21, he's finally able to purchase alcohol in his hometown of Chicago, a city that’s produced some of the biggest rap exports of the last decade. The scene is thriving, with local heroes like Chance The Rapper and Timbaland’s latest protegee, Tink, leading the new pack. Nicki Minaj didn’t miss a trick, enlisting emerging local rapper Lil Herb for her footwork-leaning track “Chi-Raq,” in which her Minajesty spits “Chi-Raq all the way to Queens, let’s get it.” As if that wasn’t enough to confirm Chi Town as the city of the moment, a third of the 12 rappers featured on XXL’s 2014 Freshman list were from Chicago. Naturally Vic was one of them, placed alongside his close friend Chance The Rapper.

Vic, Chance and their crew of bandits, SaveMoney are hustling for the spotlight. "Vic is the only other artist that understands that hip hop is not a competitive sport,” says Chance. “That’s what makes him my only viable competition." On his track “Acid Rain”, Chance raps: “I still get jealous of Vic and Vic’s still jealous of me. But if you touch my brother, all that anti-violent shit goes out the window with you and the rest of your team.” Chance also featured on “Tweakin’”, a track on Vic’s excellent mixtape, INNANETAPE, released in October 2013. SaveMoney is a movement encompassing a whole stable of musicians, producers, artists and designers, and the group's red logo takes up Mensa’s entire left forearm.

"I wanna be Pharrell with bars," he says when we meet in a leafy pocket of South West London, where he's been laying down a new track. And like Skateboard P, he's reluctant to be confined to one genre of music. On his latest release, “Down On My Luck”, he sings over a house-pop instrumental, fusing a chart-friendly pulse with INNANETAPE's fluid hip hop. He might be making a play for the big time, but his hometown roots run through his music like the Chicago River cuts through the Windy City. "There are very few people who have changed music like Kanye West," Mensa says of the Chicago-born rapper. "Not a lot of people bridged that gap between lyrical rap and conscious, politically-involved, progressive rap music like Kanye West and Lupe Fiasco. They wasn’t corny and they really talked about the same blocks that we grew up on. They could relate to the hood but they also took it past the hood and it was so much more than some street music."

Many young local MCs with similar concepts are being put in the same pigeonhole as well-known conscious rapper Common, Mensa says, before asserting that it's important to him not to come across as self-righteous in his tracks, which camouflage a layer of wisdom with catchy hooks and upbeat melodies. “You need to give people something digestible even if it isn’t presented as exactly what it is. It’s not that I necessarily set out making music to put a message in it, but the messages that stick are those that are presented in an understandable way – something fun or exciting or interesting." He goes onto discuss what he refers to as 'Incense Rap' and his feelings about being categorised as a conscious rapper. "They just talk about knowledge of self and all that shit. People get sick of hearing that, I know I do." Expecting to be typecast once more he asks, "I guess I’m a conscious rapper right?” Asked what category he believes he fits into. He responds, "I just call it real. Authentic."

As arrive at soundcheck for his KOKO show, headliner Danny Brown and Scrufizzer are ripping through their track "Dubstep", while Vic's London-based uncle arrives to meet his nephew for the first time. His younger cousin's already a fan, duh, and they take selfies together on an iPad.  Eliza Doolittle appears and the pair begin their debut performance of "YNSP." “I was already a fan of Vic when we connected on “YNSP,” Doolittle says. "I’d heard him on “Cocoa Butter Kisses” and it led me to “Orange Soda” and “Hollywood.” “The music reminded me of The Pharcyde, which is my everything. We actually met on Skype for the first time to discuss the song and where to take it. So easy and fun to work with.”

Mensa's love for London music doesn't just extend to getting local girl Doolittle on a track though. During his set tonight, he plays Meridian Dan's ubiquitous grime anthem, "German Whip" – which he'd discovered at a Billionaire Boys Club party in the capital the previous night – and laughs as the crowd in the multi-teared venue promptly goes insane. He has a powerful presence tonight, whether performing hype tracks like "YNSP” or the mellow "Hollywood, LA." When asked what role he played at school, he admits, "I was the class clown, kinda. I was just the class cool nigga. I played soccer, I was on varsity when I was a Freshman." He hasn't lost his athleticism – tonight, he leaps across the stage, launching himself into the crowd. It's a far cry from the brooding performances of conscious MCs.

Alongside the Chicago movement being labelled conscious, there's the aggressive sound of Drill, which alongside Bop, dominates the city's musical landscape. Popularised around the world by artists like Chief Keef and King Louie, the sound has received bad press due to the gang violence that surrounds the genre. But it’s the main avenue for rappers in the city, with radio stations supporting Drill artists over those with a peaceful message. While the high-energy, aggressive sound promotes gang violence and drug dealing, SaveMoney would seem the perfect counterpoint to the Drill scene, but Vic maintains the two sides have more in common than you'd expect: "I was with King Louie a couple weeks ago. Katie Got Bandz is Brian Fresco’s cousin. We're all from Chicago, my niggas know they niggas. It’s not really a rift. There is a divide in the public eye that hasn’t really been bridged that should happen soon. But in terms of actual people, a lot of us are from the same places."

In between his tracks' soothing hooks and catchy refrains, Vic weaves verses about lost lives and heartbreak. On "Time Is Money," his matter of fact approach to violence in his hometown will leave you cold. Especially his question to God, "Why you let babies get shot? Why babies is killing?" Speaking on the press attention "Chi-raq" has been getting, he muses, "It feels a bit media-sensationalised; I don’t think it benefits the problem in any way, but it’s not a lie. I know niggas that do that and are in and out of jail, catching bodies. I got my nigga tattooed on my wrist because he got shot in the head two times in his car on 69th and Stoney two years ago."I been to a couple funerals, it’s real. It’s depressing sometimes, especially when it gets too close to home. This year specifically there’s gonna be a lot more seen of the scene outside of that, because the real music’s gonna last and it’s gonna shine through. This is that time and that’s no slight to anybody but that’s not gonna be all that Chicago is recognised for any more."

“(the concept of 'Chi-raq') feels a bit media-sensationalised; I don’t think it benefits the problem in any way, but it’s not a lie.”

In a green room in a turret high above KOKO, Mr Hudson and Aluna Francis chat with Vic, producer Smoko Ono and Cody, Vic's manager, after the show. With half an hour until the after party, Smoko's hungry. Vic is too but as more weed is prepared to be rolled, Smoko’s losing his mind with hunger. They've not been informed of the peri-peri high of Nando's so it's on Dazed to fill them in on London's favourite chicken. Shortly after, Vic walks into the restaurant 10-deep as they prepare to close for the night, singing the restaurant's praises before heading to an afterparty at Proud Galleries. There, Vic's undeterred by the absence of a stage, jumping onto a ledge in front of the DJ booth to perform his new release "Feel That" for the second time that night before launching into a freestyle version of "Orange Soda."

2013 was a big year for Vic, culminating in a US tour with Disclosure, almost immediately followed by a European tour with Danny Brown. He's learnt to stay healthy: "it’s something I’ve had to catch onto because I used to be wilding out and that was damaging. So I drink a lot of water." But he admits to learning a tough lesson in New York as a result. "I was wearing this shiny denim reflective jacket for the whole Disclosure tour, I had to piss hella bad one night and I was off the shits. We pulled over three blocks from where we were staying. I got out, I was super hungry too so I was just dizzy and light headed. In my light-headed, dizzy state, I got out and peed on a wall in Brooklyn in my shiny ass jacket and the police pulled up and shined a light on me." He got a ticket, blaming Casper from Larry Clark's cult nineties movie Kids for making  him think it was no big deal to pee on New York walls.

Luckily tonight there are no signs of him running into the cops. Vic and Smoko arrive at a Trapstar party in a penthouse suite of the Edition hotel in central London. Standing in the kitchen, the sprawling room collectively asks, "Where's the alcohol?" to a dry penthouse, where the sound system can barely cope with the drop on Young Thug's "Danny Glover". Every time the song's intro climaxes, the room dips into dramatic silence. But being in a penthouse in Mayfair is an adventure in itself. Barely able to see in the darkness, they retreat onto the heated balcony where marijuana smoke drifts up towards the BT Tower.

In a corner of the penthouse, a curvy female in a PVC skirt bends over as several men stroke her ass. It's a strange scene, aided by the dark, unfamiliar location and the lack of alcohol. She struts away wearing only a bra, but Vic barely pays attention as he circles the room, preferring to talk than dance. The setting is very Trading Places, but things start to feel Great Gatsby-esque as the long white curtains billow into the room from the balcony. The party's host, Mikey Trapstar, is nowhere to be seen and many of the guests are searching for their souls. Some Red Berry Ciroq appears, but as the clock strikes 4am, it's a good time to go home, so we leave one of the hottest properties in American rap to his own freewheeling celebrations. In the early hours of the following morning, we're awoken by a phone call from Mensa's manager Cody. "Do you know where Vic is?"

"Down on my Luck" is out on July 27. Pre-order here