Tuesday, August 8, 2017

album review: 'the autobiography' by vic mensa

You know, for as much as I've talked about the hip-hop scene in Chicago, I'm a little amazed it has taken me this long to talk about Vic Mensa. 

Well, okay, not that amazed, as his career trajectory has taken a couple odd turns over the past five years since his breakthrough mixtape Innanetape. That got him the attention of Jay-Z and Kanye, who loved his peculiar way of bending rhymes with honest subject matter that could be tempered towards the mainstream. And yet it took until 2016 for us to get a solid EP project out of Vic Mensa... and the reception to it was mixed. And going back to the project I can see why: on the one hand you had Vic Mensa as an MC who was unafraid to get very political and speak with candor about his own struggles with fame with remarkably honest framing... and yet he also had a bad tendency to slip towards mindless mainstream junk with weakly sung hooks and sloppy bars, which gave the impression of squandering potential. And while I did respect There's A Lot Going On for songs like the title track and '16 Shots', it reminded me a lot of when Pusha T released his solo debut with My Name Is My Name - a great, versatile rapper with a distinct style who ended up let down by pointless attempts at mainstream crossover that especially in 2016 would not have gotten traction.

So of course I was curious about his debut project, especially given that he racked up an impressive and occasionally weird list of guest stars. I wasn't going to complain about seeing Pharrell, Joey Purp, Syd or Dreezy show up, and considering what No I.D. did for Jay-Z this year there was a lot of potential going in. At the same time, though... I get repping for Chicago, but I'm not sure that was enough of an excuse to put Chief Keef on this, or why in the Nine Hells he chose to get Weezer on this project and not just Rivers Cuomo. Again, this promised to be pretty interesting, so what did I find in The Autobiography?

Honestly, I've been sitting on this review for a couple of days now... and I'm just not all that engaged by what Vic Mensa is putting together here, mostly because it feels like the sort of pivot that doesn't entirely play to his strengths. To some extent, you can easily slot this into the major label debut from a hip-hop artist that carries a fair few of the same cliches while watering down the sounds and emotions that made him so compelling in the first place - not a bad project but if you're expecting the level of raw emotionality or political content he's been known to deliver... you're not going to get that.

But let's start with Vic Mensa himself, and I'll say this: as a rapper, I wish I liked him more. Don't get me wrong, he's got solid enough flows and structure behind his bars, and his writing style certainly feels more detailed and textured than many of his peers, to the point where you can definitely see the influence of Kanye and Jay-Z in some of his bars. And I'll say this to his credit - while I still think he's ironing out the best places for his singing delivery, he's much more capable of handling an expressive hook than a lot of rappers who try for this delivery. Hell, even though some rough edges come through, he's got enough gentle multi-tracking that shows he probably doesn't need Ty Dolla $ign supporting him on hooks, credited or otherwise. But that expressive quality doesn't quite overshadow technical issues with his rapping, the most notable being a bad habit of repeating phrases in order to rhyme words with themselves - which I don't understand because he's a descriptive enough rapper to seemingly not need that. But a similar instinct seems to occur with a lot of his punchlines: he'll set up a good line or metaphor, and then in the next line instead of expanding upon it he'll immediately explain it, almost as if he doesn't trust the audience to follow his logic - which, again, kind of strange in the era of RapGenius, especially when the references can feel as direct as they are! We'll have more on this in a bit, but finally you get the points where he just drops the rhyme scheme entirely for no reason, and it can make otherwise good lines just feel stilted, not quite displaying the potential for craftsmanship that I know Vic Mensa has.

And on that subject, it's a little alarming how much it feels like he's wasting his guest stars. The obvious case is with Weezer on 'Homewrecker', where he gets a pretty unimpressive blur of wheedling guitar behind a pretty clunky beat and a few points where Rivers Cuomo shouts the title of the song - that's it! And that sense of waste crops up again on 'Gorgeous' - you get Syd but all you have her do is offer barely recognizable backing vocals on the hook that don't really fit the mood of the song? Or you get Dreezy to show up to supplement the narrative on the third verse of 'Heaven On Earth', but you don't give her credit? I think she did more for that song than Chief Keef's verse on 'Down For Some Ignorance', which Vic and Joey Purp could have easily handled on their own! Or take the hook on 'Wings' - I love the slick swells of synth and the tighter percussion groove courtesy of Pharrell, but his hook is so flat and it kills the momentum that thankfully Saul Williams manages to salvage in the outro. You get the sense that outside of Ty Dolla $ign lending support on the hooks, Vic Mensa doesn't seem to have a firm cohesive grasp of where to place his guest stars, and yes, that lack of cohesion does seep into the production. I'll give points for more guitar-driven hip-hop, and I like how it's blended and sampled on songs like 'Wings' or the spikier edges on the R&B-leaning 'Coffee & Cigarettes' that seems to be channeling some Miguel in a good way or how it anchors the crooning on 'We Could Be Free', and I like the soul sample behind 'Didn't I Say'. The issue is that a lot of the production trends towards a more synth-heavy sound I remember hearing in hip-hop a good ten years ago, that I'm not certain it's aged as well or has the groove or potency Vic Mensa thinks it does. I get that this album isn't trying to go as hard, but when you get the big warbling walls of synth and vocal layers that's trying for a satire of that brand of hedonistic party rap on 'Rollin Like A Stoner', or how the draggy waves of synth on 'Gorgeous' try to play off the jazzy piano, or the darker bassy trap touches on 'Down For Some Ignorance'... more often than not the production is supporting hooks that are catchy melodically but aren't consistently supported in the low-end, which leads to songs that don't quite grab me in the same way.

But where this gets to be more of a problem is in the content - and while I would understand it if Vic Mensa was looking to get a little more personal and a little less political for a mainstream release - I wouldn't like it and I'd argue it would hurt his brand, but that's a different conversation - I don't really think that happens here. Instead we're seeing territory where Vic Mensa is either touching on stories he's discussed before or engaging in storytelling that can have decidedly mixed results. And sure, there's some merit in re-establishing his origin on songs like 'Didn't I Say' and the much more detailed 'Memories On 47th Street', but his relationship songs surrounding the rocky breakup with Natalie Wright don't paint anyone in a good light - and it seems like less of that is thanks to intentional framing, with 'Homewrecker' playing a little too hard into the 'I cheated, but she's so crazy' paradigm and 'Gorgeous' has him trying to play for both girls and the flattery rings as a little insincere and self-serving. In fact, there's a number of artistic choices that feel self-serving on this record - even songs I otherwise like such as 'Heaven On Earth' feature him speaking from the perspective of a dead friend giving him advice and praising him before going on to the point-of-view of his friend's killer in a bit of a whiplash tonal change. And sure, there's still self-deprecation on 'Coffee & Cigarettes', but it feels a little more muted and grounded or in the case of a song like 'Wings' much more indicative of real self-loathing, and there's less of a chance of finding one of Vic's particularly corny references... which more often than not he then explains, like that Macklemore line on 'Heaven On Earth'. But where this record falls flat for me is that additional confessional, more conscious side... and while it shows up in scattered fragments, it's not a good sign that the most politically direct song 'We Could Be Free' goes and references Jadakiss' 'Why', a track already thoroughly skewered for its array of asinine questions.

But as a whole... look, this is an okay project, but I find myself thinking with more focus and refinement this project could have done better, especially as I don't find this leans into Vic Mensa's strengths, at least consistently. He's a talented and expressive MC, but I've heard him be far more incisive and potent on the microphone than here, and while there is a certain mainstream pivot that can work, on The Autobiography it can't help but feel a little clumsy. As such, from me I'm giving it a solid 6/10 and a recommendation for Vic Mensa fans, but I've heard more confessional and incendiary material out of him, and while this debut might bring some new listeners, I can't say it's the best showcase of his talents. Check it out if you're curious, but otherwise, I wouldn't blame you much if you passed over this one.

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