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Vic Mensa - I Tape (Album Review)

Tuesday, 30 March 2021 Written by Jacob Brookman

For Vic Mensa’s latest release, the rapper and activist has pulled together an eclectic group of sounds and collaborators on a seven track EP that demonstrates the Chicago wordsmith’s breadth of talent. ‘I Tape’ is an occasionally fantastic turn from a musician who has hovered on the edge of mainstream success since being signed to Jay-Z’s Roc Nation stable in 2015.

Mensa’s lack of mainstream breakthrough is surely by choice. Tracks like Millionaires (feat. Tish) manage to navigate trap, gospel, old school samples and jazz chords with a deftness of musicality that suggests a chart hit is likely within his reach, and yet from a pop perspective the track is a bit of a Frankenstein’s Monster, with no memorable hook.

Indeed, ‘I Tape’ exists more in Frank Ocean/Tyler, the Creator album territory, where rapidly changing compositions are structured with casual-feeling alacrity. And yet there’s more to these arrangement choices than catering to depleted millennial attention spans.

The way that Millionaires disappears into the spoken word skit Kwaku takes another step away from the spotlight into the realms of an alternative hip hop mixtape, recalling DJ Shadow or Rob Swift, and as the EP continues it gets better.

Another oddball cut is Fr33dom (feat. Zacari), which opens as a synth, vocals and electric guitar ditty that recalls Prince, before dropping into a spiky tip-toeing groover that is equal parts trap and grime. Here, we are in slightly more familiar territory with police sirens and an almost recognisable verse/chorus structure, and yet Mensa’s ostentatious bars stop the track from ever feeling predictable. It’s terrific, actually.

The high point is probably the closer Shelter, featuring hip hop royalty Wyclef Jean and Chance the Rapper. It’s a low-slung guitar-led song with delicate, thoughtful stylings by all involved, and provides a splendid, sprawling finale to a piece of rare integrity and conscience. Mensa deserves to find a bigger audience.

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