Only a few months ago, Vic Mensa was a teenage prodigy in Kids These Days, a group out of Whitney Young High School that had a major-label deal in its pocket and credentials that would be the envy of many artists: Lollapalooza gig, national television appearance, studio album produced by Wilco's Jeff Tweedy.
And then it all came undone. The band splintered over musical direction in April as it was signing to Republic Records, a subsidiary of Universal Music Group. Just like that, everybody had to start over.
Mensa may have looked back in anger and regret over what might have been, but not for long.
His rapid re-emergence as an artist to be reckoned with was signaled by the recent, self-released mixtape, "Innanetape." It's among the year's best albums (and it's also free, available at vicmensa.com).
The breakup of Kids These Days "put a fire under me," Mensa says. He described the "mad tension" in the band in its final months, particularly between him and singer-guitarist Liam Cunningham.
It hurt to discover that most of the other band members formed a new group, Marrow, that excluded him.
"I thought, 'I'm going to show everyone in the band what's really good.' I had to get past that. That's not necessarily the way to look at things, with a chip on my shoulder, vengeance. But I can't lie, I felt that."
That drive was palpable as summer was fading and Mensa sequestered himself inside Soundscape, a Ukrainian Village recording studio, to put the finishing touches on the music that would redefine his future at the ripe, young age of 20.
Co-producer Peter Cottontale laid down some fluid, jazzy chords on his electric keyboard near the mixing board, while trumpeter Nico Segal, also a former Kids These Days member, fired up warm-up scales on the studio floor. They were adding still more layers to tracks that Mensa never quite thought were done.
"The process is basically this," said Mensa, wearing a Rage Against the Machine baseball cap as he sat behind the mixing board. "I get ADD about a million ideas and make a million tracks, and then we try to minimize it."
Mike Kolar, Soundscape's chief engineer and owner, nodded. "Let me leave it at this: Staring at them (on a computer screen) gives me an epileptic seizure."
The process of making what would become "Innanetape" was both cathartic and draining. It started when Mensa began collaborating with Cottontale early in the year, while Kids These Days were still intact. "Vic has a lot of ideas and an open mind; that is a good combination," the producer-keyboardist says. "He likes to explore. That's where I come in."
"Lovely Day" was underpinned by "a supercrude beat" when Mensa brought it to Cottontale, who fleshed it out with more sophisticated jazz and soul voicings. "I was just star-struck; it was jaw-dropping what he did with that song," the rapper says. "When he sent it back to me, I couldn't imagine anyone understanding what I wanted to do better than this. From there, we would work on everything together. Peter was just amazing at transforming ideas I had to be exactly what I envisioned."
Mensa and Cottontale had developed tracks such as "Lovely Day," "Holy Holy" and "Run" that were earmarked for Kids These Days, but they were greeted with indifference. "I remember sending some of those to the band's management and label and getting crickets (uncomfortable silence)," Mensa says. "I knew that music was worth something, but they weren't hearing it."
After Kids These Days broke up, Mensa, Cottontale and Cam Osteen, a friend of Cottontale's from Las Vegas, focused on the "Innanetape," and turned it into a genre-bending, free-flowing musical journey that touches on new wave, horn-fueled soul and confessional ballads.
"A few days before it was released, I was having a breakdown, thinking, 'Man, this is too much, there are too many highs at once. Will anyone understand this?'" Mensa says. "But now I realize there is no moment in this record when I try to be anything other than myself. These different styles are my influences, what inspires me. The knot that ties it together is that I'm telling the truth about who I am."
The album's first half is largely upbeat and bright, the sound of a precocious artist making his way toward adulthood but determined to savor every moment of his youth even as he outgrows it. The second is darker and more introspective, the sound of a young man struggling with "Fear and Doubt," as one song bluntly states. "Questioning what is my life to become?/ I wonder if I'll ever be the man my momma wish I was."
Victor Mensah was born to two educators: Betsy Mensah, who works in the Chicago Public Schools system, and Edward Mensah, an economics professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago. The aspiring rapper was a good student who got caught up in shoplifting and dealing pot. But his musical aspirations cut short his days as a hustler.
"My dad would always give me a ride to these recording studios in dangerous 'hoods, because he didn't want me to ride a bike there at night," Mensa says. "I was 15 and coming back at 11 p.m. or midnight weekdays when I still had schoolwork. I believed I was going somewhere other than a school route. As much as my dad tried to make me focus on education, he was never too prideful or stuck in his ways to understand that his kids should be their own people. I appreciate him for that. His support is what pushed me away from other things I was doing that were less accepted by him.
"I was hustling, but morally I didn't feel right anymore to be doing these things out of my father's house while he was paying for my studio time or giving me $20 to go eat. I realized I was taking all these risks, and it wasn't right. My hustle died. I stopped being the weed man. I became the rap guy."
He met another aspiring MC, Chancellor Bennett, aka Chance the Rapper, at an open mic night when they were high school freshmen. "We sort of grew up together, and our relationship is way more than music," Mensa says.
Chance and Mensa collaborated in the spring on "Cocoa Butter Kisses," a key track produced by Cottontale on Chance's "Acid Rap" mixtape.
The acclaim showered on "Acid Rap" has brought Chance a new level of fame in the last few months: a Lollapalooza performance, sold-out theater shows, a stream of offers from record labels.
A year before, it was Mensa who was riding high because of Kids These Days' success and their courtship by the mainstream music industry.
Now, the two friends are frequently lumped together as part of Chicago's rising, young hip-hop community, which in recent years has seen artists such as Chief Keef burst into national prominence.
"It's undeniable that people will compare us," Mensa says of his relationship with Chance. "It gets frustrating. I do feel that what I do is unique, but because the comparison exists, they try to apply it to every possible situation. It's reaching in the dark, putting things side by side that don't compare. But time will reveal the truth, and the truth is we're different artists who make different music."
He puts his faith in the quality of the work, not on who's hot and who's not. "It's cool that Chicago hip-hop is so highly publicized now. But I don't look at myself as being based in Chicago hip-hop, or hip-hop at all. I try to make overarching music that doesn't plug into any box. I felt we were trying to do that in Kids These Days, and I learned a lot in that band and loved it.
"That's why I put songs together on my computer and also jam with musicians. I want to revolutionize music by bringing back that authentic feel. I feel there's a lot of stuff out there now that won't stand the test of time. It's a fad, and I'm not a fad."
Vic Mensa: 6:30 p.m. Saturday at Reggie's, 2015 S. State St., $10; firstname.lastname@example.org