Vic Mensa doesn't hesitate about taking risks, but for too long, those risks were with his personal health. As the Chicago rapper and Savemoney founder rose in popularity and began collaborating with the likes of Kanye West and Skrillex, his drug use began to damage his personal life and mental health. Now that he's sober, Mensa's new EP, There's Alot Going On, takes big risks musically, as he shows a newfound intensity and political focus in songs like "16 Shots." To prepare for his show tonight at Club Red in Mesa, we talked to Mensa about the new material, his collaborations with touring partner Joey Purp, and the acid trip that changed his life.
So you just performed at Lollapalooza, right? How was it this year?
Lollapalooza was so dope. It was really fresh.
Do you get to spend much time there in Chicago these days with friends and family?
Yeah, I live in Chicago, you know what I'm saying? I come back to Chicago whenever I'm off the road. I definitely try to spend time with my family and my Savemoney family.
I wanna ask you about your new EP you just put out, There's Alot Going On. It was a big turn towards darker and more politically conscious material — can you speak to what inspired that change?
Getting sober. That's always been of paramount importance to me, social issues and all, but when I was more wrapped up in drugs it was harder to articulate.
How long have you been sober at this point?
Since the end of January.
Is that difficult for you to maintain on a day-to-day basis?
No. I mean, I drink at night. [laughs] But it's not difficult. I'm way more enjoying my life without any drugs in it.
On that note, there was a line that stood out on the title track of that EP: "I did acid in the studio one day and almost killed myself." Can you tell that story?
Yeah, I can tell that story. So what happened there was, I was in a point of time since probably 2013 where I jumped from drug to drug as, like, a creative crutch. It was really like a handicap, but I got to a point where I just felt like I needed drugs to write, to be creative, and thought it was psychedelic drugs. I did too much mushrooms, to the point where I couldn't even do it anymore, I would just have a bad trip. So this was sometime after that. But I was in the studio with some of my friends and we did acid and we started buggin' out, somehow things just took a really negative turn. I just felt really low and at the bottom of it, and I was on the ground trying to sink into the floor. Then I went outside and I went to my car. It was near Halloween and I had this toy pistol in my trunk, it was part of my costume. And I'm just glad it wasn't a real pistol. I was just thinking about bridges and all that suicidal shit. It scarred me for a while. I was definitely dealing with that bad trip for at least a year.
Do you feel like you've learned from it now?
Yeah, don't do acid [laughs]. No, it's not just about the drugs though, it's more so about a state of mind. And my state of mind is elevated past there.
So does the new EP indicate what direction your new album is going to take?
There are definitely parallels sonically and lyrically. The album, though, draws a lot more from that last song "There's Alot Going On" and kinda expands into just really personal stories about my life. So there's definitely social parallels in there, but it deals more with very personal experiences than it does with political issues. But like I said, they still exist in there.
What kinds of personal experiences are you exploring?
Childhood, relationships, good and bad of 'em, definitely drug addiction, and the loss of close friends and triumphing from those losses. Seeing experiences I've had in the city of Chicago growing up and being a grown man now.
You said recently this album came out of scrapping most of the material you had for your long-awaited debut album, Traffic. Are you still planning on calling this album Traffic or is this something entirely new?
Something entirely new.
Do you think we're ever going to hear any of those songs you chose not to release?
I dunno. Maybe. Probably not [laughs].
Given you're moving to such darker songwriting, are you worried about alienating the fans you made with your lighter work on INNANETAPE?
No. I'm just worried about being real, making dope music, and it'll reach the people that are ready for it, and hopefully make some of those who aren't ready for it open their eyes and their ears and their hearts.
What other musicians are inspiring you these days?
Um, man, like, David Bowie, Weezer, Mike Dean, Public Enemy, the Fugees, Lauryn Hill.
I'm surprised to hear you name David Bowie and Weezer, those not being hip-hop artists. How do you see them showing up in your sound?
Well, my sound isn't a traditional hip-hop sound. It takes a lot of influence from rock music. So in the sonics and songwriting, those inspirations are apparent.
This is a while ago, but I'm curious what your reaction was when Kanye's The Life of Pablo came out and your part was cut from "Wolves."
I thought it was wack. I just didn't think the song was as good. Everybody told him he was tweaking with that. But I just talked to Ye recently, and that's big bro. He's also one of my biggest influences.
What's it been like touring with Joey Purp lately?
It's really dope. I mean, Joey's one of my best friends even before either of us were making music. His new mixtape is phenomenal. He's been really killin' it on the shows. So it's exciting.
(Editor's Note: Check out our story on Joey Purp here.)
It was pretty amazing seeing you two together on Sway playing off each other on the freestyle. Do you two do that a lot together?
I mean, we grew up doing that together, you know? So yeah. And actually the shit we were spittin' on there was from a song we just recorded on the road, so we're gonna put some shit in the streets.
Is that going to be on your album?
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No, we've been talking about doing some type of project together for a while.
So you're planning to put together a whole album or mixtape together?
Something. I can't really put any specific length or label on it, but we're planning on putting something together.