Vic Mensa at Riot Fest Credit: Alison Green

Vic Mensa
has an affinity for punk. You can hear it in the ferocious tone he brings to his songs when his target is a lethal racist cop or anyone else who deserves his righteous rage—and his clothes flat-out scream it. Maybe you remember him wearing a Bad Brains T-shirt at Pitchfork a couple years ago? If not, you can find plenty of other examples in his Instagram feed—right at the top he’s posted a shot of an LA gig where he’s got on a Dead Kennedys shirt. Lately he’s been wearing a leather jacket dotted with studs and patches, including one for anarcho-punk heroes Crass. The jacket was made by 93 Punks, a clothing line with some connection to Mensa—he’s been pushing it hard on social media.

But Mensa’s choice of jacket isn’t all that radical when you consider that punk is in vogue in hip-hop. Kanye’s merchandise for his The Life of Pablo tour was designed by Cali DeWitt, an artist and west-coast punk who used to work for DGC and helped Riot Fest headliners Jawbreaker land their deal in 1994. And punk music—whatever you take that to mean—is a crucial reference point for a lot of big new rap sensations. As much as Lil Uzi Vert and Lil Peep have created their own distinctive personas, they can’t escape comparisons to the third-wave emo that inspired them.

Mensa’s fingerprints are all over past eight years of Chicago hip-hop, but what makes him punk? His music is all over the place stylistically, and he doesn’t try to sound like Uzi or Peep or any of the other new rappers drawing on pop-punk and 90s rock. What makes him seem more at home at Riot Fest than most of the other young rappers who’ve played the festival recently?

Vic MensaCredit: Alison Green
Mensa (with Misfits back patch) and Joey PurpCredit: Alison Green

For Mensa it’s all about attitude—and speaking of “Attitude,” he wore a leather vest with a Misfits back patch for most of his Friday-night Riot Fest set. (He was also wearing a Casualties shirt, but they don’t have a song called “Attitude.”) His anti-authoritarian streak comes through most strongly in his Laquan McDonald protest song, “16 Shots,” which he performed twice last night. It’s a ferocious indictment of Chicago cops and Chicago government, and on the recording, Mensa’s grief and outrage help him power through its knottiest turns on record. Unfortunately that fire was largely missing at Riot Fest—his low-energy set sometimes felt rote, and it didn’t help that he started with the first four songs from his recent debut album, The Autobiography, in the same order. At the beginning of the third, the keyboard-heavy “Rollin’ Like a Stoner,” Mensa tried to stir people up: “This is fuckin’ Riot Fest, right? It feels a little tame in here.” He fixed that, at least temporarily, by diving into the crowd partway through the song, setting off a surge of jostling and jumping.

Mensa and the hometown crowdCredit: Alison Green

For most of Mensa’s stage time, though, he didn’t feel so connected to the crowd. He was pretty alone out there—he brought up a guest for just one song, and though producer Peter Cottontale was playing keyboards, his setup was tucked against the back wall of the stage. Mensa sometimes seemed adrift, especially when he slumped to the ground dolefully at the end of the Weezer-assisted “Homewrecker.” Mensa appeared to perk up when Joey Purp came out for “Down for Some Ignorance (Ghetto Lullaby),” feeding off Purp’s euphoria and returning it with some of his own. But with nobody to bounce off—and especially on some of the moodier Autobiography material—he seemed to be going through the motions. He hit his notes just right told the crowd how much he loved Chicago, but from watching his body language you wouldn’t know he was playing a hometown show.

Joey Purp (left) joins Mensa for “Down for Some Ignorance (Ghetto Lullaby).”Credit: Alison Green
Joey Purp and Vic MensaCredit: Alison Green

That’s not to say Mensa has lost the fire in his belly—he just seemed to forget it was there. Thankfully it came out during what appeared to be an unplanned encore. Mensa told the crowd he wanted to do “16 Shots” again for Malik Yusef, the poet and musician who’d collaborated with him on the recording—Yusef had planned to join him to perform it at Riot Fest, he explained, but got held up by the police. “Fuck CPD!” Mensa shouted at the top of the song—and at the end, he let out one last “Fuck the cops!”

After the stage finally cleared, I saw a young white fan high-five three police officers near the sound booth. I don’t necessarily think Mensa was a bad fit for Riot Fest, but I have my doubts that most of the crowd took the pain and injustice that inspired “16 Shots” to heart.

A moody Mensa momentCredit: Alison Green

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Credit: Alison Green
Credit: Alison Green
Credit: Alison Green
Credit: Alison Green
Credit: Alison Green
Credit: Alison Green