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This or That? Vic Mensa vs. Vic Spencer

Rappers need to captivate. You can use big words, strange flows, funny punchlines, and complex metaphors, but if your s–t doesn’t hold the listener’s attention, it’s all in vain. It’s not enough to rep your city or chase a trendy sound; in today’s economy, you need to amaze every time you pick up a mic, or the fans will leave you high and dry for the next phenomenon real quick.

Vic Mensa is the latest Chicago media darling. It goes beyond his friendship with Chance The Rapper, back to Kids These Days, the live hip-hop band that Mensa fronted for some time before the group went their separate ways. It’s a shame they split — the market seems ripe for a hybrid rap band with live instrumentation — but at least the split happened early. They knocked out quality projects like ‘Hard Times’ and ‘Traphouse Rock’ before disbanding, and now Vic doesn’t have to be the next Black Thought, suffering solo debut purgatory for the sake of his group.

That solo debut, ‘INNANETAPE,’ quickly relieved any worries about the band’s breakup that might have been amok. He’s not as left-field as Lucki Eck$ or quirky as Chance, but Vic is a throwback to the lyrically dense era of Def Jux backpackers — that’s evident on the opening song of ‘INNANETAPE.’ He can speed up and stack syllables until they topple or stretch words out, alternating between cadences from one line to the next and breaking into song at random opportunities. When you’re the MC for a live band, you learn how to master the crowd whenever you’re on stage. For a young dude, Vic seems to have a preternatural ability to captivate.

Chance put him on ‘Cocoa Butter Kisses’ from ‘Acid Rap,’ but what really made Vic’s name pop online was ‘Orange Soda,’ the first leak from ‘INNANETAPE.’ It sounds like the soundtrack to the most relaxing day ever. His verses are like streams of consciousness, as his cup runneth over with words tumbling out of his mouth. It’s not overwhelming, but the volume of his rhymes is larger than usual. After awhile, it’s as if his subject matter is cannibalized by his technique. The latter can become the former, as Goethe once said, but if Vic has dope s–t to say, you don’t want to miss it in exchange for his delivery; a balance of both would be ideal, he just hasn’t quite struck it yet. He also veers a little too close to Chance’s style at times throughout the tape, and even though the steez itself is a breath of fresh air, the similarity is hard to ignore.

‘Hollywood LA’ is an even better single, as it floats into the clouds of stoner sounds, but Vic’s biggest song to date is ‘Down On My Luck.’ As of this writing, the video has just over 1.4 million views on Youtube, and the video description says the single just dropped on iTunes (Jul. 27). Ever since Azealia Banks’ ’212,’ the music industry has been waiting for someone to blend rap and electronic music as skillfully as she did, but it hasn’t happened yet. ‘Down On My Luck’ might be the best attempt since, nailing the house sound even better than the rap angle. He’s signed to Universal and if they can put the right resources behind him, Vic might take over before Chance reemerges.

Don’t sleep on Vic Spencer, though. Spence doesn’t sound rushed or immature. His beats are nuanced, his flows are funky, and he just comes off as a more advanced MC. While Mensa’s music tends to try and stretch the appeal towards kids, giving his music a juvenile (albeit playful) fragrance. Spence just doesn’t give a f–k, and that lack of targeting makes his music that much more palatable to anyone that likes dope raps. Just play that ‘Catalog Don’ mix above, and if you don’t feel like turning it off after five minutes, then you know you’re hooked.

Maybe it’s Spencer’s age that defines his approach. He’s over 30 years old, nearly dinosaur age for an up and coming rapper, but he’s got this weathered sound in his voice, like he’s tired of doing anything except what he loves. If he was Mensa’s age, he might be open to experimentation, but he doesn’t have time to push the envelope. He’s too busy getting s–t off his chest.

Last year’s ‘The Rapping Bastard’ is a gripping, visceral testament to his singular talent — “I rap like Vic Spencer, nobody else,” he says defiantly on ‘Comfort Zone.’ Another young Chitown rapper, Mick Jenkins, has a bit of Spence in him, but Vic has substance where these other rappers are just masturbating with words. He wakes up flossy, but acknowledges he’s blessed; he s–ts on rappers who spend 12 hours in the studio and only do two songs; “you don’t get chances, you make chances.” He isn’t spitting the New Testament, but his voice cuts through speakers like a knife. This isn’t playpen rap. Spence spits with the gravity of a guy who knows this is his last shot.

Both Chicago MCs have room to succeed on their own. Mensa has been showing off his musical flexibility with new s–t like ‘Feel That’ (which knocks), while Spencer is thriving off consistency with recents drops like ‘Feastmode’ and ‘Spin Cycle.’ At this point, Mensa is in a better position to pop nationally between his record deal and his willingness to expand beyond rap sounds, but that doesn’t make him the better rapper. If these two battled, Spence would probably eat Mensa alive. That’ll never happen, though, and for good reason: the Chicago scene seems to be a self-sustaining one where flourishing acts are willing to prop each other up, drill aside. Chance is the most powerful one in the city right now, and every look he gives to those under him increases their shine exponentially.

In the near future, you might hear Mensa’s music at the club, but you’ll bang Spence’s raps in an alley. Two different styles that serve two different purposes and can find two different platforms of popularity. Now it’s just a matter of time for these rappers to captivate the world’s ear.

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