Few things in modern music are more satisfying than a good come-up story. The mixture of luck and skill that empower the rise to glory out of monotony, tragedy, or circumstance is a powerful aphrodisiac. And on February 22, the ASU 365 Community Union draws our attention to two particularly enticing cases on stage at the Sun Devil Stadium: Chicago MC Vic Mensa and the Arizona-born Injury Reserve.
For many, a first taste of Vic Mensa came in 2013 in the form of Mensa’s excellent contribution to Acid Rap, his feature on “Cocoa Butter Kisses,” where he and Chance trade verses on striking the hard balance between a street-smart lifestyle and a mother’s love. Two years and a mixtape would pass before Mensa’s next big break: a televised performance of Kanye West collaboration “Wolves” alongside Sia for SNL’s 40th anniversary party in February 2015. Mensa signed to Roc Nation shortly thereafter to release summer banger “U Mad” ahead of a label debut the following year.
Mensa’s releases on Roc Nation have proved the young artist’s ability and willingness to take the city on his shoulders apart from his endorsements. “16 Shots” reflected on the death of Laquan McDonald at the hands of the Chicago police in October 2014. “Rage” is an inspiring track reflecting on the universally dark times of doubt we live in with Dylan Thomas’s “Do Not Go Gently” mantra in tow. Even before the memoir format of his full-length debut, The Autobiography, Mensa proved himself to be a thoughtful and introspective commentator on the difficult, thorny plot of progress.
On both The Autobiography and 2018 EP Hooligans, Mensa has taken the narrative to personal levels that few of his contemporaries brave. Songs like “Dark Things” and “Klonopin” discuss anxiety, pharmaceuticals, and a larger social depression impact the way we choose to see our lives. On climactic The Autobiography track “Wings” (a masterful production piece by Pharrell), Mensa teeters on suicidal notions before realizing the full extent of the potential his perspective can offer. In these moments, Mensa goes beyond his mentors by offering a holistic picture of artistic humanity in trial.
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Joining Mensa on stage will be a group with a very different struggle to the spotlight. Getting their start in Tempe back in 2014, Injury Reserve lived in a city that did little to reciprocate their vision. On 2015 debut mixtape Live at the Dentist’s Office, tracks like “Friday Night” and “Washed Up” paint a bleak portrait of a city offering hardly anything in terms of inspiration or opportunity. But a strong critical endorsement put the album on many a radar outside the city. Consequently, one Chicago rapper Vic Mensa would make an appearance on the group's 2016 breakthrough, Floss.
A move to L.A. in the year following would do the group huge favors in terms of exposure and connections. Suddenly, the brilliant hot and cold balancing act of dueling emcees Stepa J. Groggs and Ritchie wit a T had the platform it deserved. After 2017 EP Drive Like It’s Stolen, Injury Reserve would embark on their first national headlining tour and (eventually) land a record deal with Loma Vista Recordings. This year’s mesmerizing single “Jawbreaker” (featuring Phoenix indie rock act Pro Teens) is our first sample of this new chapter for the group. Here, Parker Corey’s production is more adventurous and mind-boggling than ever. Meanwhile, Groggs and Ritchie are nothing but showmanship, flexing their unique styles with infectious finesse.
While Vic Mensa and Injury Reserve may (to date) only have one point of on-mic connection, the fresh perspective the two bring to the present state of hip-hop is not only welcome, but necessary. And on display on the Sun Deck at the Sun Devil Stadium, they both finally have a capacity worthy of their potential.