It is rare for me – like, count on my fingers rare – to hear a hip hop song I’d describe as “beautiful.” Common is responsible for one. Chance the Rapper another. Kanye West, four. There are probably others, but already the city of Chicago is disproportionately represented. And now, Vic Mensa’s “The Autobiography” adds one more. “We Could Be Free” is the album closer (if you don’t count bonus tracks), and it’s in the vein of the others: built around a soulful hook, with vocals floating high in the mix and lyrics that embrace what another Chicagoan, Barack Obama, calls “faith in struggle”:
“All dressed up for Sunday masses
Pastors said put faith in God
But faith alone can’t make things right
Fuck is you to patronize somebody’s son who daddy died?
Why they flood Baton Rouge?
Why the city singing Alton’s blues?
Why, why, why, why?
I feel like Jadakiss every time I watch the news
What the fuck I got to lose?
So I’m down to bleed if it means things improve
You fools, saying “all lives matter”
But it’s black lives you refuse include
Blocked from the polls, locked in the hood
Trying to stop you from voting and stop you from growing
And cops keep blowing and blowing
Keep black people rocking the cotton they don’t want you to own but
Sometimes I wake up and I look up in the sky
Asking why I survived all the days that I could have died
Who am I in my place to contemplate suicide?
In those times I try to remember
That we could be free, truly
If we’d only knew we were slaves to the pains of each other
One thing I believe, I could learn
To see my enemy as my brother
Then we could be free, you and me
And love could wash away all the sorrows
I’m not afraid to bleed
If it makes a better day than tomorrow
Granted, I’m a sentimental guy. And granted, Chance and Vic aren’t on the same level as Common, Kanye, and the 44th President. But for my money, Chicago produces the most beautiful music in hip hop. At its best — on “We Could Be Free” — “The Autobiography” adds to this reputation.
At its worst, the album still sounds very good; aside from a pair of tracks that evince a teenaged boy’s understanding of love, sex, and women (both of which — “Homewrecker” and “Gorgeous” — are musically pleasant enough), there are just two more that rubbed me the wrong way. And that’s mostly because they have a sound that is currently on-trend, which makes me feel old and out-of-touch.
Those two, “Rollin’ Like a Stoner” and “Down for Some Ignorance,” feature minor-key, almost droning hooks that feel like the kind of house party at which no one gets up from the couch. Think Travis Scott’s “Goosebumps,” which was produced in part by Mike Dean, whose fingerprints are on these tracks as well. (No disrespect to Dean; he’s also been involved with some of the most exciting, innovative hip hop and R&B of the past decade.) As with my enthusiasm for soul-centered production, it’s a matter of personal taste; this particular trend is, for me, the sonic equivalent of black lights and bong water. Which makes it all the more surprising that I keep coming back to these songs. It’s Mensa who makes the difference: whereas other rappers working with a similar palette manage complex subject matter by boiling it down to simple lyrics delivered with a flow that can seem anemic, Mensa goes in, his flow syncopated and his lyrics playfully doubling back on themselves, even in a trope as common as the count-in: “One, two, three too many drinks, I think I might forget / How to count to ten, I tend to turn two shots into a fifth.” When he raps about being drunk and stoned, he doesn’t slow down and slur words. Rather, he maintains cadence and pace, and his voice just gets a little throaty, like someone answering the phone after waking up from a nap. In short, even when he’s working with a beat that sounds like it’s for Migos, he manages to sound like J. Cole.
Vocally, Mensa is versatile in both tone and flow; through every song his words run clear and close to the bassline, and his voice has the slightly up-tuned eagerness that characterized Kanye’s on “The College Dropout.” There are subtle shifts throughout the album, complementing the content. A little more swagger in “Memories on 47th Street,” pointing up his pride in having thrived after some pretty dodgy childhood experiences. That hint of woozy drawl in “Rollin’.” Once or twice, he gets close to Eminem’s spittle-spraying rage; check the end of the second verse of “Wings,” when that double-time snare seems to push Mensa’s psyche to the brink. And, perhaps more often than you might expect, his voice elevates into melody, an earnest, unpretentious tenor. These shifts in register sometimes come out of the blue, as if his vocal chords were too moved by emotion to remain merely percussive. On “Say I Didn’t,” for example, it’s a bar or less of a singing voice that’s a little sandy, but strong and maybe even sweet. On some tracks, you catch the choppiness of Autotune, but otherwise it sounds like you could expect Mensa to sound more or less the same if he were singing, un-miked, in the kitchen. He’s not showing off; I don’t think he could. He’s not R. Kelly, but he’s not far from Chris Brown; like the kid sitting behind you in church when the hymn happens to be in his key. What I mean is, he goes for it, and I’ll take that over a polished, glittery R&B vocal any day.
In terms of storytelling, “Heaven on Earth” is the album’s standout track. Closely and frankly modeled on Eminem’s “Stan,” “Heaven” features the same pencil-scribbling, page-turning background effects, the same epistolary structure. It closes with that same sad, startled “Damn…” But whereas “Stan” is a story about Em’s failure to placate a murderously unhinged fan, “Heaven” is a lament for all three of its characters, and, by extension, communities affected by what Chance the Rapper calls “the plague” of gun violence in their city.
“Heaven” is presented as a series of three letters: the first from Vic to his murdered “big brother Cam,” the second a reply from Cam, who passes along greetings and blessings from Vic’s grandmother, a friend named Rod, and, somehow appropriately, Kurt Cobain, who “like[s Vic’s] shit.” The final letter is penned by the unnamed hustler who murdered Cam. It’s a startling turn, that last verse. The killer comes across as just another character, “another n—– caught up in the street game.” His story reveals just how “caught up” he was; events proceed automatically, without intent, without cruelty. The murder plays out in jarring realism, seemingly despite the shooter’s best intentions. It’s this sympathetic rendering of the song’s “villain” that turns sideways the typical tragic, drug-related-shooting-death narrative. Instead of being about a murderer, his victim, and the surviving friend, “Heaven on Earth” depicts all three characters swimming in the same stream, carried by the same tragic current.
That inevitability is palpable in the work of a lot of Chicago’s young musicians; its associated despair has bled through drill production into much of the rap landscape. Throughout “The Autobiography,” Mensa pushes back against that despair. Along with “We Could Be Free,” “Heaven on Earth” exemplifies how: by empathizing with so-called enemies, even giving them a voice. (And not just an equal voice; the unnamed killer in “Heaven” gets a full 16 bars more than either of the other characters.) Doing so is, by my reckoning, a more powerful act of positivity than a whole album’s worth of sunny optimism, one of the rarest notes a rapper can hit: sincere, selfless generosity.