Vic's proper debut is full of potential, but refuses to settle on a cohesive musical direction.
Ironically enough, The Autobiography as told by Vic Mensa only makes it more difficult to determine who exactly Vic Mensa is supposed to be.
First of all this album does almost no justice to Vic Mensa’s proven ability to rap. None of the tracks with the exceptions of perhaps “OMG” or “Rage” feel like even a glimpse of Mensa’s true lyrical abilities. Interestingly enough, the songwriting and Vic’s singing are some of the most appealing parts of the work. There’s a lot of discord not only in the songs themselves but also thematically between the music selection. All of the beats are fire and big praise goes to No ID for the dynamic production. Vic’s vocal ability is incredibly amorphous and in some ways that’s the problem with The Autobiography. It’s incredibly difficult to place where Vic Mensa stands as a musician. He switches from disparate styles with whimsy and when he is rapping he frequently mimics the cadences of other prodigies of the Roc (Kanye and J. Cole most recognizably).
Whether it’s due to his struggles with addiction and depression, complacency from being signed by Jay-Z, or some other mysterious force at work, The Autobiography finds Vic exploring so many different types of songs that sometimes it’s hard to believe that it’s the same person performing from track to track. The one constant throughout the tape is the concepts of trauma and violence. There’s the violence Vic witnesses growing up, the violence he experiences from the police, and the violence he wishes to commit to his own body. Suicidal ideation and depression appear throughout the tape, however it feels as if there is no resolution or concrete addressing of his issues beyond mentions of feeling guilty for being suicidal because he’s been so blessed. Even the love songs are violent, with “Coffee and Cigarettes” featuring lyrics like “A shootout in the background as I told you that I love you” and “A gunshot to the heart couldn't have hit me as hard as you did”.
Vic Mensa goes in and out of maintaining the motif of the album as a heavily narrative-driven confessional with many of the songs serving as first-hand accounts of some of the tragedies and hardships he has suffered. This technique is perhaps best utilized on “Heaven on Earth” where Vic alternates rapping between his own perspective and personifying both his fallen friend and his killer. "Heaven on Earth" is one of the most gripping performances on the album and is somewhat reminiscent of Eminem’s "Stan." The inspiration doesn’t feel subtle enough however it is definitely one of the best uses of the heavily narrative-based technique that Vic deploys throughout the album.
The featured artists on the project are just as varied as the sonics. Vic is aided by Sid, Pusha T, Weezer, Ty Dolla $ign, Pharrell, as well as fellow Chicago mainstays Chief Keef and Joey Purp. “Gorgeous” is a beautiful song about infidelity in which Syd and Vic’s voices fuse on the chorus into a near perfect facsimile of N.E.R.D era Pharrell. Here he samples Kanye’s cadence from "Stronger," and while it doesn’t weaken the track it would be nice to see Vic stand with a style of his own or at least commit enough to strengthen these types of forays properly.
Artistic growth aside, it’s hard to understand why he would abandon the lyrical prowess that has brought him so far. Perhaps it serves as a means for new listeners to be able to easily latch onto his words as well as continue the pop crossover that Vic seems to desire. Despite this, the triumphant "Say I Didn't" and the braggadocios "OMG" are probably the most easily accessible of the tracks on the album and they're the closest to being outright rap records on the work. On these tracks, Vic slightly picks up the speed and dexterity of his lyrics to match the blustery production of No ID and Pharrell. This results in something that sounds nothing like any of the other records on the album and perhaps ending the tape with "OMG" is a tongue in cheek acknowledgment of the lack of rap density on the project.
The album seems to be more about solidifying Vic’s place in the Roc-A-Fella dynasty rather than expanding his individual artistry. No ID handles the majority of the album’s production, in addition to serving as executive producer, and Vic shouts him out in typical Roc fashion on "The Fire Next Time" with “No ID on the track let the story begin.” Unfortunately, The Autobiography does only feel like the beginning of the story and even with the moments of intense honesty it feels as though Vic is still hiding from too much. The album best displays Mensa’s skills as a jack of all trades type artist rather than him honing in on a specific skillset.
Although he does execute some of his ideas masterfully, the problem is that it feels as if he’s being pulled in many different directions and has yet to choose which ring he wants to throw his hat into. Is he a “young rap god” as he claims on "Gorgeous" or a “rockstar”? Is he a remorseful drug addict or an unabashed lover of debauchery? In he a nihilist or a staunch political activist? The problem with the album is that Mensa seems to be all of those things and then some more, which is okay if you’re trying to be complex individual but can cause confusing when trying to create a soundscape that successfully encapsulates all of these elements.
Much of the blueprint of this album can be found on his previous EP There’s A Lot Going On (which probably would have been a better title for this work), so the movement towards more alt-rock trappings is not surprising, however where that project benefited from its succinctness and cohesion, The Autobiography feels much more half-baked. In trying to “do it all” Vic loses much of the weight that his raps used to possess and instead he falls into a tendency of using snippy pop culture punchlines like, “Just like Macklemore at the Grammys / I feel like you got something you didn’t deserve.” Alone that bar isn’t really that bad, but when used in reference to a friend who was accidentally killed during a robbery, the seriousness of the encounter becomes much more trivialized.
Between the Malcolm X homage in the album name and typeface, The James Baldwin references on “The Fire Next Time”, the frequent callbacks to other rappers and his overall punk image, there’s a sense that Vic isn’t sure exactly what type of artist he wants to portray himself as. Having a wide range of interests and influences isn’t an inherently bad thing, but when they're not coherently blended they resonate less like an autobiography and more like a collage. The reason it’s hard to tell what Vic Mensa is trying to convey to his listeners is because he’s trying to say so many different things at once. While there surely must be a market for these types of sounds, as a hip-hop record, The Autobiography falls a bit short. This being said the vulnerability and honesty on the album are incredibly refreshing and appreciated. Additionally, the power of Vic’s vocal range and willingness to tackle a multitude of genres is impressive and makes him incredibly versatile. Perhaps with further development of his and a rededication to his roots as a lyricist Vic can produce a sturdier fusion of his artistic aspirations in the future.