Vic Mensa Credit: Dave Kotinsky

After Shawn Carter grew from rapper Jay-Z into all-powerful rap mogul Jay Z, the money he made as one of the most gifted lyricists in music became a key ingredient in his songs—resulting in the sagging nadir that is 2013’s Magna Carta Holy Grail. But a switch flipped with his 13th album, June’s concise 4:44 (Roc Nation/UMG). Call it a response to Beyoncé’s Lemonade (in which she confronts infidelity, a subject her husband addresses here); call it a response to ongoing injustices and the now very public deaths of black citizens at the hands of police officers. Whatever lies behind Jay’s shift of gears, the result is great. 4:44 is, um, a blueprint for navigating hip-hop in middle age. Though the genre’s known for being unkind to artists when their youth fades away, Jay shows it’s all about perspective. He looks back on his life and place in the world with a searing, self-critical eye, which gives the album an energizing force and makes the material his most relatable in years. The album was executive produced by Chicago hip-hop legend No I.D., who held the same role for the studio debut from insurgent local rapper Vic Mensa, July’s The Autobiography (Roc Nation/Capitol). Like 4:44, Mensa’s album is deeply self-reflective, though he’s faced different challenges than Jay-Z en route to its completion. In his case, he explores his continued desire to live up to the prophecies that deposited him at the top of Chicago’s contemporary hip-hop scene, and his need to prove himself to anyone who still considers him a novice, if they consider him at all (this is, after all, a debut). At its worst, The Autobiography feels a little too fussed over; high-profile guest contributions from Weezer and Pharrell are more distraction than boon. At its core is Mensa—who traverses his faults and personal history the way most people follow Google maps—providing its strength. While he’s transparent about his self-doubt over his path in life, his untroubled, sweet performance on the Darondo-sampling “Say I Didn’t” shows he’s right where he needs to be.   v