Ever since Vic Mensa crawled up next to Kanye West during the Saturday Night Live 40th Anniversary Special in February the young Save Money rapper has been making big moves to establish himself as an artist to watch, particularly for a pop audience that generally doesn’t pay attention to too many rappers not named Kanye West. So far this year Mensa has appeared on two of West’s new singles (“Wolves” and “All Day”), roped West to guest on a single of his own called “U Mad,” and signed to Jay Z’s Roc Nation in April. Yesterday Mensa released the video for “U Mad,” a horn-blasting, wide-screen, bombastic track and places the MC in a red-lit room where more sparks rain down from the ceiling than in an action flick.
“U Mad” has the look and feel of many major-label hip-hop videos, which is to say every shot projects the rapper’s larger-than-life personality. And there’s a lot of grandeur in here, from the close-up of the “Southside” tattoo on Mensa’s neck as he stands shirtless with his arms outstretched, to the moment West emerges from the shadows, a king of hip-hop swooping in to shine some light on the emerging force from his hometown. But the most striking moment occurs three-fourths of the way through the video, when a battalion dressed in riot gear marches into the frame to go head-to-head with a group of revelers who had previously been seen moshing alongside Mensa.
The clashing between the armed forces and unarmed partygoers takes up a small fraction of the “U Mad” video. But it’s more than enough time to recall the string of violent confrontations between police and unarmed civilians that have dominated news cycles since the shooting death of Michael Brown nearly a year ago. And these stories continue to emerge: just this weekend a video of a white Texas police offer using excessive force on unarmed teens of color went viral, as did news of cops using “military hardware” on crowds outside of Hot 97’s annual Summer Jam in New Jersey.
When these unfortunately familiar, brutal images appear in “U Mad” they add a new wrinkle to the track. Mensa’s capable of stronger lyrics than some of what he shovels here, and his Ray Rice reference is a low point. Yet much of what he raps about is self-worth—sometimes in the face of condemnation—and Mensa’s performance feels huge partially because he’s able to inflect it with the sense that he’s had to fight to get to where he is.
Watching a faceless army go to war with Mensa’s friends in the “U Mad” video is a reminder that he had a lot more to overcome than what he’s addressing directly in the song. Seeing Mensa posing alongside one of pop’s dominant figures shows that working your way to such an enviable position can be much more of a victory than words can properly express.