Show review: Vic Mensa at Populux, Tues., August 18

WHO: Vic Mensa
WHEN: August 18, 2015
WHERE: Populux

I went into Vic Mensa with somewhat tempered expectations and left with my body exhausted and my heart pounding.

The expectations were nothing against Mensa himself. He’s one of the brightest young talents in hip hop, and in the past year or so he’s taken a huge leap forward, but live shows can be especially tough on young rappers, when it’s all on them and all mistakes are obvious. There’s a lot of hype around Mensa, and he doesn’t even have a full-length album out yet. I expected flashes of greatness, but not a fully formed performance.

The first good sign was Mensa’s stage design, decorated by street signs (a nod to his upcoming record Traffic) and featuring an LED screen. It’s rare to see an up-and-coming artist already have a thought-out aesthetic for his stage, especially in a venue as small as Populix. After DJs went through practically every hip-hop hit from the past three years, and Mensa’s SaveMoney crewmate Towkio performed his set, Mensa came out and did “Feel That” and “Wimme Nah” back to back, getting everyone jumping down immediately and making me legitimately worried for at least a second that we would all collapse the floor.

Backing him, Mensa had only a trio of musicians, including live bass and guitar, which often gave his songs more of a minimalist instrumentation. On stage he’s a striking presence with his blonde tips and menacing throat tattoo reading "SOUTHSIDE," but it felt like there was little divide between him and his fans, and Mensa was never afraid to go into the crowd. Vocally, he had full command, hitting basically all of his lines and making himself heard above the pounding bass.

“Cocoa Butter Kisses,” Mensa’s feature from Chance the Rapper’s Acid Rap and perhaps still his best known song, got a gigantic singalong, but in the middle of the set, a surprising reinterpretation of Future’s “Codeine Crazy” was one of Mensa’s most impressive moments. Mensa took the druggy epic and made it his own with new verses, turning it into a dramatic centerpiece of the entire show. “New Kanye” is a bad cliché that’s been applied to almost every non-drill rapper to come out of Chicago in the past few years, but at least a couple of Mensa’s songs, like the new “3 A.M.,” bare Yeezus’s influence with their dark, heavy bass and slow, fucked-up contemplation.

The stretch run of Mensa’s show was more commanding, powerful, and relentless than any 22-year-old’s performance has any right to be. “No Chill”’s shouted call and response of “Practice? (What the fuck is practice?)” is genius and effortless even if you’re unfamiliar with the song. “Down on my Luck”’s vocals are tricky to pull off live, and it was the one time Mensa really relied on a backing track, but that glossy disco beat remains the danciest and one of the most interesting songs Mensa’s done. And “Wolves,” the Kanye track that Mensa featured on, ostensibly from the upcoming SWISH, showcased another side of him, one that’s vulnerable and has a beautiful voice.

For the finale, Mensa went back to the oldest trick in the hip-hop hype book, dividing us into a left side and a right side and pitting us against each other to see who could be the craziest. “U Mad” as the set closer was a foregone conclusion, the opening horn line still made everyone completely lose their minds. Mensa crowd-surfed as everyone kept yelling along, jumping and moshing and practically shaking the building as the speakers blasted one of the hardest, most destructive songs of the year. The show seemed to be wrapped up after that, but a crowd chant of “Save Money!” sparked what felt like a truly impromptu repeat of “U Mad.” Even though everyone one must have been totally exhausted, we still found the energy to once again joyfully match the demolishing beat.

Chicago hip hop and R&B right now might be the best scene to come out of any American city in the past 15 or more years, and SaveMoney is at the absolute forefront of everything. Chance is a star already, Vic is right up there with him, and even Towkio, though his set was a little undercooked and lacked great material, showed the same kind of potential Mensa did when Innanetape came out in 2013. I worry a bit about Mensa’s upcoming Traffic, because there are so many different sides to Mensa’s art that it’ll be difficult to fit them all on a debut record, but last night’s show was a triumph, and even if he doesn’t get everything right on his first record, he’s still overflowing with ideas, talent, ambition, and energy.

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