Vic Mensa steps up

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Vic Mensa

Chicago rapper Vic Mensa jumps in the air on Monroe Street east of Michigan Avenue, a spot that has special meaning for him. Three years ago, Mensa fell 30 feet to the Metra tracks near this spot and was burned by an electrical transformer while trying to sneak in to Lollapalooza. This year, he was a performer at Lollapalooza. (Chris Walker, Chicago Tribune / August 10, 2013)

It's been quite a run for Chicago hip-hop the last few years. Hard-edged drill music from the South Side led by Chief Keef, King Louie, Lil Durk and producer Young Chop hit nationwide first. Then came the soul-dipped textures of Chance the Rapper, Prob Cause and Tree.

Now it's Vic Mensa's turn, with one of the most anticipated releases of the year, the "Innanetape." Though packaged as a mix tape — a free, independently released project that is usually not taken as "seriously" as an official album — "Innanetape" has steadily grown in ambition and scope since the South Side rapper began putting it together earlier this year. It puts Mensa's agile, high-energy delivery at the center of a kaleidoscopic array of multi-part arrangements that blend programmed beats and live instrumentation.

Until the spring, the 20-year-old Mensa was a key member of Kids These Days, a promising band originally formed several years ago by seven music-obsessed high school students from the West and South Sides. Mensa toured with the septet, including high-profile appearances at Lollapalooza and the South by Southwest Music Conference in Austin, Texas. Last year, Kids These Days recorded and self-released an album, "Traphouse Rock," produced by Wilco's Jeff Tweedy. And then, just as the band was about to sign with a major label a few months ago, it splintered.

"There was mad tension," Mensa explains. "There were so many of us in that band, talented in so many areas, and we all needed more room to create."

Mensa didn't miss a beat. He dove right into "Innanetape." Along the way, he popped off a high-profile cameo on "Cocoa Butter Kisses," a track from Chance the Rapper's "Acid Rap" mix tape.

Mensa and Chance have been friends — and friendly rivals — for several years, with Mensa drawing acclaim for his charisma and invention with Kids These Days. Now Chance has set the bar higher by scoring nationwide acclaim for "Acid Rap." Mensa aims to answer the challenge on a recording that was originally supposed to be out over the summer. But after recording for months, he still hasn't stopped. Mensa says there are now about 20 tracks in play, which he aims to pare to about 14 for the finished mix tape, which is due out Sept. 30. The production, primarily by esteemed keyboardist Peter Cottontale and Las Vegas expatriot Cam, is lush and layered, with a musicality that draws on Chicago soul and jazz as much as it does on South Side hip-hop. It includes contributions from former Kids These Days members Greg Landfair and Nico Segal.

"I love all the people in Kids These Days," Mensa says. "But I had a certain ear and vision, and it's cool to make songs from scratch and take them exactly where I want them to go."

greg@gregkot.com

Twitter @gregkot

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