Whilst concept albums have existed in rap music for quite some time, they have begun to take a rather different and more collected form in contemporary hip hop. Although there are notable examples of classic rap records with complex and cohesive narratives, such as Deltron 3030’s self-titled debut, Dr. Octagon’s Dr. Octagonecologyst and Liquid Swords by Genius/GZA, many hip hop releases that are routinely labelled as “concept albums” tend to be strung together by recurring themes rather than fully fleshed-out storylines, whether this be the deconstruction of fame, wealth and excess on Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy or the central concept of food on MF DOOM’S Mm.. Food. Nowadays, however, for a mainstream MC to well and truly push the boat out on an album’s concept is hardly uncommon, as can be exemplified by the previous few releases from Kendrick Lamar and Logic, and even the latest record from Big Sean, I Decided.. This is true to the extent that many MCs will have at least one album in their back-catalogue that follows a self-contained thematic arc, and it would seem that plenty of budding rappers are taking up the challenge of making a defining, conceptual statement with their first full-length release. Given the significance of websites like Genius and the thriving activity of r/hiphopheads and other rap-based Internet forums that love to debate and dissect lyrics and album concepts, such an approach makes a lot of sense from a marketing perspective. With a unique enough concept, or simply a well-written enough narrative, a debut that witnesses an MC push out in thought-provoking, thematic territory right from the onset could do wonders for capturing the imaginations of rap fans and having the Internet go crazy with lyrical analyses and discussions. After making a name for himself by appearing on Chance The Rapper’s sophomore mixtape, Acid Rap, which was followed by a relatively successful mixtape of his own with INNANETAPE, Chicago rapper Vic Mensa has set his sights on making a thematic statement with his debut record on JAY-Z‘s Roc Nation label, The Autobiography. Professing the album to be a reflection on his own humanity, whilst allowing the listener to project themselves onto many of the recurring ideas presented throughout the tracklisting, Mensa’s debut veers away from the political commentary for which he has become associated through his limited output released up until this point, instead looking largely inward. How well the MC handles this subject matter, however, is another matter entirely, and it’s hard to put forward the case that Mensa comes through with a particularly engaging project with The Autobiography. The fact that the album’s concept has been done before by fellow rappers is no criticism in itself, but the fact that Mensa uses countless platitudes as a crutch in an attempt to retain a veneer of relatability hinders the extent to which he is able to say anything of much substance. Undoubtedly, the salient redeeming quality of The Autobiography comes in the form of the production across the record, but this was bound to be the case with No I.D. being employed for the role of executive producer. Whilst many of the instrumentals over the course of the record are rather impressive, that’s not to say that they, too, do not suffer from primarily evoking other artists, as opposed to establishing any sort of definitive identity for Mensa himself. All in all, whilst The Autobiography is a perfectly competent debut with its fair share of highlights, the bulk of the album is too lacking in substance or personality for it to be the defining debut from Vic Mensa that it likely could have been based on his previous endeavours.
Both as a rapper and a lyricist, Vic Mensa’s skills seem to be unduly toned down on The Autobiography, and for seemingly no good reason. Although the influence from JAY-Z, Kanye West and other Roc Nation labelmates like J. Cole had often been evident in his flows, Mensa struggles to carve out any semblance of a unique delivery across his debut. That’s not even necessarily to say that the rapper merely sounds like a sum of his influences, rather he resorts to many clichés that have been used countless times over by all manner of MCs, to the point wherein it can be hard to unearth Mensa’s own voice amidst his bars over the course of the record. What’s more, this is only exacerbated by the fact that, right from the onset with the opening track, Didn’t I (Say I Didn’t), the rapper routinely resorts to coupling words with themselves or letting his rhyme scheme slip altogether, which often obstructs the syrupy smooth flow that he typically employs across the album. If Didn’t I (Say I Didn’t) alludes to a more admirable aspect of Mensa’s capabilities on the mic, however, it’s the ease with which he melds melodic passages seamlessly into his verses, whilst the sections for which he chooses to sing entirely go down rather well, with the lack of auto-tune being a worthwhile choice, as the multi-tracking of his natural voice captures a silky tone that plays well against the bright instrumentation. Admittedly, the instrumentation and production is of a relatively high standard consistently across The Autobiography, and the classic Chicago sound that No I.D. and co. bring to the table undoubtedly makes a complementary pairing with Mensa’s rapping style, which is only to be expected, given that many of No I.D.’s collaborators have clearly influenced his flow and delivery. The bubbly bass and punctuated bursts of glassy, glistening synths on Memories On 47th St. provide an appropriately buoyant backdrop to what is one of Mensa’s most expressive performances on the record, whilst the shimmering guitar, warm organ and meandering bass licks uplift the MC’s falsetto vocals on Coffee & Cigarettes to an almost gospel-like complexion, making for some genuinely blissful moments. Even on the latter track, however, the production notably outshines Mensa himself, with the rapper’s singing further into the cut falling into some more stilted passages, once again arising from some poorly structured rhyming couplets. Mensa’s hook on Down For Some Ignorance (Ghetto Lullaby), too, comes across as an awkward fit, with the MC potentially striving for some sort of a moody inflection to his voice that ultimately comes off as flat and monotone, lacking both the punch it thinks it has and the eerie intensity of the original Saul Williams song that it samples and references in the lyrics, as it plays against the rather rudimentary and repetitive synth lead and ad-libs. With Mensa struggling to find his footing over numerous beats across the album, with The Fire Next Time and Rage standing out as prime examples of this, the fact that many of the features across the album are wasted becomes all the more disappointing, as seeing the likes of Weezer, Syd and Pharrell Williams listed in the credits boded well for some of these songs being injected with a fair bit of personality as a result. Yet, with Weezer’s contributions to Homewrecker amounting to Rivers Cuomo reiterating the track’s title during the outro and some faint, watery guitar lines that ultimately blend into much of the guitar-based production across the course of the album, and with Syd’s performance with Mensa during the refrain from Gorgeous lacking any chemistry or character, not to mention it being barely audible, leads to most of these guests being squandered by assigning them to some of the most inconspicuous roles possible. The same is true of Pharrell’s distant, heavily-echoed vocals over the hook of Wings, which would be difficult to recognise as coming from the mouth of the iconic singer were it not for him being credited, although Saul Williams’ energetic, multi-tracked verse towards the backend of the cut thankfully amounted to an exceptionally memorable point in the tracklisting. As previously stated, although The Autobiography unquestionably has its moments, both in terms of Mensa’s abilities as a vocalist and especially in terms of the production, much of the record is missing the personality or individuality that can so often make or break a debut album from a rapper.
As for the actual presentation of what one can assume from the record’s title is an autobiographical reflection on the MC’s life, the attempts to engage the listener with the relatively flimsy arc across the album can be seen through rather easily as almost forcefully guiding the audience to particular conclusions. The numerous spoken-word passages that introduce the occasional song, wherein the sound of a pencil scribbling on paper can be heard to really hammer home the idea that this album is, in fact, a true documentation of Mensa’s life, do little to fortify the record’s narrative, as they only appear before certain songs, and it’s quite clear that when they do appear, it’s simply so the artist can somewhat ham-fistedly exposit the meaning of the track to the audience. With Mensa also falling into the infuriating habit of explaining the punchlines in his bars after the fact, much of The Autobiography sees the rapper desperately and clumsily attempt to guide the listener in how they interpret its narrative, which ultimately works against Mensa’s own claim that he wants “the listener to make parallels to themselves”. Instead of the listener coming to any of their own conclusions, or projecting themselves into the narrative in any subjective fashion, the MC seems hellbent on telling the audience exactly how they should be feeling at particular points across the album, and it’s easy to see through this as compensating for a relatively weak thematic framing to the arc of The Autobiography. What’s more, it’s not as if Mensa paints himself in the best light across much of the album, and not in a self-aware fashion wherein the rapper acknowledges his flaws in any constructive manner, rather he seems to be oblivious to his own egotism and hypocrisy at times. This most notably shows up in many of the love songs across the course of the record, with Homewrecker being a painfully un-self-aware and ludicrous reproval of Mensa’s ex-girlfriend, Natalie Wright, for going “crazy” after catching him cheating, and using that as justification for his infidelity, regurgitating the insufferable ‘we both made mistakes’ excuse. With the following song, Gorgeous, expanding on his excuses for cheating, which amount to him whining that “it’s too hard to say no”, it’s difficult to understand how Mensa intended any of this to portray him in a humble or remorseful light. This isn’t helped by the strange and self-congratulatory messiah complex that the MC assumes at certain points throughout the record. Heaven On Earth, for example, sees Mensa rapping from the perspective of a letter addressed to his dead friend Killa Cam, which, during the first verse, the rapper handles rather well, admitting to his poor means of coping with this tragedy. It’s during the second verse, however, wherein the MC chooses to rap from the perspective of Cam addressing Mensa from Heaven that things get more rocky, with the rapper not at all treating this attitude with the care it deserves, instead coming through with bafflingly egocentric lines, such as, “I smoked with Kurt Cobain yesterday, he said he liked your shit”. With the third verse witnessing Mensa rap from the perspective of Cam’s nameless killer, in the form of a letter addressed to the deceased friend in Heaven, during which the artist treats this angle with an admirable amount of impartiality and level-headedness, it’s clear that Mensa had a good idea for a song concept, but unfortunately let it succumb to his strange outbursts of inadvertent narcissism that recur all too often across the course of the record.
For the bits and pieces of potential that Vic Mensa had displayed across his smattering of releases up until this point, it’s hard to say that The Autobiography capitalises on these strengths in an especially productive fashion. For the most part, the production stands well on its own and, at the best of times, complements Mensa’s delivery exceptionally effectively. After all, with the MC clearly pulling from Kanye West in both his rapped and sung performances, it only makes sense that the soul-heavy sampling across the album that harks back to West’s early output would be very well suited to him. However, this does point to perhaps the salient issue evident across The Autobiography, that being that, coming away from the record, the listener doesn’t exactly have a very good picture of who exactly Vic Mensa is, either as a rapper or a storyteller. Although the artist could be seldom said to entirely drown in his influences, there’s simply a lack of substance to his musical identity that limits the extent to which this project can truly leave an impression on the audience. Whilst a perfectly capable release for the most part, as a debut, The Autobiography struggles to follow-through with any potency in its artistic personality.
The Vinyl Verdict: 6/10