A few nights ago, several buildings in Wicker Park were pasted with black-and-white posters featuring a shirtless Vic Mensa with a target on his chest, his body surrounded by bullet holes—a block of them took up a brick wall next to streetwear store Saint Alfred, where posters of the cover art for Chance the Rapper’s Coloring Book had previously hung. These posters, which include the phrase “There’s Alot Going On,” followed an Instagram photo from late May that Mensa posted of himself crouching over a whiteboard laid flat on the floor, apparently working on track lists for an album and a tape—its caption reads “mark your calendar. #savemoneysummer.” The hashtag refers to the Save Money crew’s ongoing stream of releases: Sterling Hayes’s Antidepressant, Chance’s Coloring Book, Joey Purp’s iiiDrops, and Mensa’s debut EP for Roc Nation, There’s Alot Going On.
The EP came out last night, and its cover art—the same image from the posters—refers to the single “16 Shots.” (Count the bullet holes around Mensa’s body and you’ll get 16.) The tune is a blunt, bold-faced retelling of Laquan McDonald’s death and the protests that erupted in November after Chicago police released the dashcam footage of officer Jason Van Dyke shooting McDonald 16 times. Mensa was among the protestors who took to the streets, and his austere eye and furious tone on “16 Shots” capture the volatile mood at the time—that energy helps him power through some lyrics so specific that they’re a bit ungainly (“The mayor lying saying he didn’t see the video footage”).
Mensa also gets political elsewhere on There’s Alot Going On. He evokes the systemic violence in Chicago on the thumping “Dynasty,” rapping “My home is Rwanda, blood diamonds and miners / High school students with guns hiding in their binder.” On the soul-influenced “Shades of Blue,” he addresses the Flint water crisis: “Color of more than pee coming out of the sink / It’s 2016 who would think / Kids in America don’t have clean water to drink.” Mensa’s overtly political statements don’t always match the resonance of his music, but pop nirvana isn’t always the point.
Mensa kicks off the chorus for “16 Shots,” which he debuted at the Justice for Flint benefit concert in February, by counting to 11 (“Fuck 12,” he says), and even though he never gets to 16, it’s a blunt reminder that a Chicago police officer unloaded 16 bullets into a young black man, armed only with a knife, who was too far away to pose a meaningful threat. When Mensa premiered the studio version of “16 Shots” on Apple’s Beat 1 radio yesterday, he told host Ebro Darden, “This record is like self-defense, because to me Laquan McDonald represents Emmett Till, which represents everything down the line.” A perfect hook is great, but sometimes just coming out and saying what you mean is more effective.
Mensa began rapping at 15 and has endured more than his share of ups and downs in the past eight years; “There’s Alot Going On” succeeds because he’s unsparing in his criticisms of his own choices. This reflects a growing sense of personal responsibility as well as a refutation of pop music’s culture of shielding its stars from the consequences of their sins. That culture can’t change overnight, but Mensa is doing his part.