Courtesy of Roc Nation

April 28, 2021

TEST SPINS | Vic Mensa’s ‘I TAPE’: A Look Into Life in Chicago

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Chicago emcee Vic Mensa has resurfaced and he’s brought a follow up to his 2020 album V TAPE. Following in its predecessor’s footsteps, 2021’s I TAPE focuses on the socioeconomic problems plaguing Mensa’s hometown, bringing the same tough bars but not quite the same level of engaging production.

Following the success of his 2013 mixtape Innanetape, Mensa has been a bit down on his luck. Although he did make some moves with singles like the Kanye West assisted “U Mad,” he didn’t capitalize on his hype nearly as well as fellow Chicago newcomer Chance the Rapper, causing him to fade into hip hop’s background. But in recent years, Mensa has begun to right the ship, reorienting his career with a number of projects. 

The extended play opens up right with “VICTORY,” which features a glorious Just Blaze beat that Mensa uses to lay down confident lyrics on his skills and his Chicago background. It’s an effective opener, with a couple of raw verses that poke at the factors causing gun violence (“Unemployment’s high, it’s harder to get a gig than to get a gun”) and the need for self-defense (“’Cause I’d rather be caught packin’ than be caught lackin’ / Shit, I could pay bond, I can’t buy my way out a casket”). “VICTORY” sets the tone for the project, as the rest of I TAPE further addresses systemic issues facing Black people in America.

But before continuing down this path, Mensa decides to take a detour with “MILLIONAIRES,” produced by several beatmakers, including BL$$D and DIXSON. A lengthy singing intro eventually drops into a Mensa verse that has the beginning vocals blending smoothly into the beat as background melodies. The song is a generic celebration of making it in the rap game, only seasoned by some bouncy internal rhymes here and there (“Fast forward to encores on packed tours / Fast cars, Scott Storch and passports”). When compared to other cuts on the project, its content isn’t nearly interesting enough to justify its inclusion on I TAPE.

Fortunately, the E.P. gets back on track with a spoken word interlude that sees Mensa’s father meditating on the good and the bad of raising a son in Chicago. This insight prefaces the aggressive song, “FR33DOM.” Serlatheo Quinlan and Davaughn combine efforts to cook up a varied instrumental that transitions into a soft Zacari-sung second half from a banging Mensa-rapped first half. Mensa’s bars are all about gun violence in his hometown; the rapper energetically insists, “By any means / This is that hunger that rumble the stomach of fiends.” This is some of Mensa’s best rapping on the project, with lyrics that connect well and manage to fit some introspection behind the macho (“This time of unrest, ain’t no need to be civil / This kind of pain feel like a demon is in you”). The second half’s switch-up into gentle vocals and ruddy guitar is a fitting outro to a heavy song.

Even heavier is the next track, “MOOSA,” which sees Mensa flowing over a Peter CottonTale beat about his friends’ experiences with the prison system. Mensa’s storytelling is on point — he introduces his friend Moosa (“Sentenced to twenty-five years at fourteen, as an adolescent shooter”) and discusses how an unprovoked fight that Moosa got drawn into could ruin his chance at parole (“Last hope of freedom cast in the shadow of doubt / All the classes and the programs, dirty toilet bowl hands / Hopin’ it wasn’t all for nothin’”). Mensa’s rapping is compelling and his verses paint a vivid picture, though some of his bars concerning depression (“Misdirected, I gripped the weapon, connect it to my temple / Resentful to be so sinful, demons on my mental”) aren’t as poignant as they were in previous cuts like Innanetape’s “Fear & Doubt.” Regardless, “MOOSA” is definitely an impressive addition to Mensa’s body of music. 

Yet somehow, I TAPE still saves the best song for last in “SHELTER.” Papi Beatz supplies a smooth guitar instrumental for a star-studded feature list of Wyclef Jean and Chance the Rapper. Wyclef’s hook is infectious and fits the atmosphere of the song perfectly, as Chance and Mensa spit verses on the unjust conditions Black people face in America due to systemic racism. 

Chance’s feature finds the rapper in top form. He begins with piercing imagery of urban life (“It’s a hundred bags under the underpass / Rumbling stomachs, cups jingle when Hummers pass”), immediately dosing the listener with a memorable internal rhyme scheme. His delivery mainly keeps with a sort of understated seriousness, with an emotive break in the middle revealing the passion behind the verse (“Producer was in house, they closer than pen pals”). It’s a gripping contribution from Chance that serves as one of the best verses on the whole extended play.

Elevating his rapping for the project’s closer, Mensa easily goes toe-to-toe with his fellow Chicagoan. His first verse covers everything from violence (“But we got more funeral homes than schools where I’m from”) and politics (“And hang us in a jail cell so they can swing the elections”) to police brutality (“But they got money for riot gear, my n—, we dying here”). It’s a hard-hitting line after a hard-hitting line, with his second verse continuing the trend (“I write for my n— doing life with no possibility for parole / You playing Fortnite, that’s how long he spent in the hole”). The juxtaposition between prisoners locked away for life and kids blissfully playing video games is a powerful one. I TAPE ends on a high note, tying together its social and economic protestations into a moving finale.

I TAPE might not be the best project in Vic Mensa’s discography — it’s hard to surpass Innanetape — but its ambitious scope and clever writing give it an edge to stand out in the waves of modern music. 

Nihar Hegde is a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at nh336@cornell.edu.