While in recent years Chicago rap has been dominated by the Southside’s Drill scene (characterized by an Atlanta trap influence and violent street themes), Vic Mensa, Chance The Rapper and their ‘Savemoney’ crew are determined to shed a different light on windy city hip-hop.
Their latest collaboration, 'Suitcase', is certainly a step in this process. The track showcases the rappers’ characteristic train-of-thought style lyrics and conversational delivery. Blending imagery that is both banal and absurd, the two create a whimsical meditation on the desire to escape the constraints of everyday life. Whether this be by travel, imagination or hallucinogens is up to interpretation.
The production, courtesy of Cam Osteen, keeps with the theme. A slow 808 beat and dreamlike synth serve as an ambient platform for Mensa and Chance’s vocals, allowing the melodic and lyrical content to come to the fore. This symbiotic dynamic is most powerfully reflected in song’s final sections, as Chance sings a haunting snippet of ‘Hit The Road Jack’, and Mensa an extended version of the melodic hook of 'Suitcase'.
The past 12 months have been life-changing for both artists. Chance The Rapper’s mixtape Acid Rap, released in April this year, has already been certified as Platinum, with over 250,000 downloads from Datpiff. He’s played SXSW 2013, Lollapalooza, toured the country twice (once with Mac Miller, once solo) and collaborated with Childish Gambino, Lil Wayne, James Blake and, most recently, Justin Bieber.
This mass success is made more remarkable by the unique nature of his music - it is so far removed from the sounds on mainstream airwaves. Chance draws from a vast and eclectic range of influences - from old Jazz, soul, funk and psychedelia to dirty south chopped and screwed - and from them creates a wonderfully quirky melange. His lyrics are equally unconventional - introspective yet filled with cultural references - and his delivery is candid and unfiltered. Most notably, his lines don’t fit into the classic 16 bar structure (or any bar structure for that matter), because as Chance says on the song ‘Acid Rain’, “sometimes the truth don’t rhyme.”
Not far behind, Vic Mensa - a SXSW 2014 showcasing artist - is about to make his own mark. Mensa released his break-out solo mixtape, Innanetape, in September of this year, only months after the demise of his band Kids These Days. The tape features appearances by Ab-Soul, Rockie Fresh, Thundercat and, of course, Chance The Rapper. It gained 35,000 downloads in its first month.
Mensa’s sound reflects his extensive musical experience. In Kids These Days' four year career, they played SXSW, Lollapalooza and The Roots Picnic, and signed a major label deal. Their sound is part rock, part Jazz, part rap, part soul, and their album, Traphouse, was produced by alt-country legend Jeff Tweedy (Wilco).
On Innanetape, Mensa samples Jazz with a glance back to J Dilla. His beats move effortlessly between genres - from funky drum samples, to golden era boom bap, to current trap-influenced 808 sounds - and he sings with soul far beyond his 20 years of age. His lyrics mix wit, absurdity, and cultural relevance. A collaboration with legendary modern Jazz pianist Robert Glasper would be no more surprising than one with Schoolboy Q (or someone of his ilk). Mensa displays a love for current hip-hop, but a refusal to subscribe to its trends - as he said in an interview with Interview Magazine, "As an artist, I try not to sound the same as others.”
Both Vic Mensa and Chance The Rapper are proving that adhering to the mainstream is not a requirement for success. Separately and together, they are carving a place for themselves - in the broader hip-hop consciousness and within their city. Their self-aware wit provides a counterpoint to Drill’s ig’nance, their samples to its autotune and their social commentary to its violence. A place that is not inherently better - as Mensa pointed out, “These artists are speaking with a side of the truth” - but is necessary. It takes both point and counterpoint to paint a well-rounded picture.
Listen Chance The Rapper and Vic Mensa on Tha Fixx Radio, Wednesdays at 12 and 6 CST and Saturdays at 10pm CST, only on SXSWfm. Tune in here on your mobile device or desktop! Vic Mensa photo courtesy of the artist