It's pretty strange to think that Vic Mensa's new EP, There's Alot Going On, is his first project in three years. Since 2013, when he broke into public consciousness, first with an appearance on Chance The Rapper's "Cocoa Butter Kisses," then with his own Innanetape, Vic's status has continued to rise at a rate uncommon for a guy with one tape and a few loosies to his name. Singles like "Feel That," "Down On My Luck," and "Wimme Nah" made enough of a splash to keep the hype train going all the way to Kanye collaborations and Roc Nation deals. To put this all into perspective: Vic spends time weighing a decision between G.O.O.D. Music and Roc Nation on his debut commercial project. Not many rappers can say that.
Although we arrive at the start of this 33-minute-long offering without a well-defined sense of who Vic really is as an artist-- is it a grainy, DOOM-revering boom bapper? A summer festival-baiting Disclosure tourmate? A Yeezus disciple? The best hope for sonically adventurous producer Michael Uzowuru to get the national recognition he deserves? A meme-baiting bangermaker?-- it's clear to see why there was, in Vic's own words on this EP's title track, a "bidding war" around him in the past few years. Whether cramming syllables into breathless verses or just cruising effortlessly over beats that don't call for motor-mouthed antics, he's got clear lyrical skills. He's got connections and uses them wisely, countering every major grab for the spotlight (Skrillex, Kanye, etc.) with a burrow into more obscure fields (Chuck Inglish, Uzowuru). Most lucratively of all, he's cultivated a starlike quality the likes of which wasn't there when he was a short-haired kid in the Innanetape era. Now Vic looks and acts the part of a rockstar, all bleached tips, leather, and denim, with a recently-inked "SOUTHSIDE" tattoo suggesting just the right amount of danger where once there was a rapper making songs about orange soda. He's marketable and real, edgy and smooth-- the type of polymath that seems mathematically destined to succeed in the post-Drake era of full-spectrum rappers.
There's Alot Going On is true to its name. The intro and closing track are both by-the-numbers, but impressive, bookends, Vic's most personal material on the album. "Dynasty" is him puffing out his chest, as any newfound Jay affiliate should, and the closer is him sharply inhaling, giving us a glimpse of the tumult behind the scenes at studio sessions and festival stages. Thematically, these function as the perfect rising-action and denouement plot devices and are the most human portraits Vic's ever painted, but any expectation of the stage being set for (and concluding with) a cohesive autobiographical journey is quickly erased. "16 Shots" suggests that this is for the better, as the protest track is arguably Vic's strongest song to date. With a narrative confined to the close-to-home Laquan McDonald shooting, but also touching upon the entire Black Lives Matter movement, "16 Shots" is focused, catchy, unrelenting, and above all, impactful, especially with the harrowing audio clip included for the outro. Its sister track on TAGO is clearly "Shades Of Blue," the other moment on the EP when Vic ventures outside of his personal life and the rap game to address real-world issues. He ruminates upon the Flint water crisis as well as any out-of-towner could, removing himself from the situation a bit and grappling with his own hesitance to donate to the cause. Both in the anger of "16 Shots" and the internal conflict of "Shades Of Blue," Vic again beautifully illustrates humanity in a way that's rarely explored by major label rappers these days. Unfortunately, the living, breathing pulse of the four tracks that begin and end this EP isn't palpable at its fluffy center.
If "16 Shots" is Vic as a revolutionary Che Guevara, "Danger" is him as the college freshman wearing a Che t shirt. In the former track (as well as this brilliant couplet from the intro: "My mind drifts to back before the Chi was labelled Chiraq/Then Chief Keef dropped in 2012, now it's a drill"), he skillfully sets up his own backdrop, showing, rather than telling, us what it's raised him to be. "Danger" is when he attempts to drop all of the scene dressing and show what it's wrought upon his life. After the first two tracks, we already know that at least a part of Vic likes the danger, but then he wallops us over the head with it. Any trace of subtlety goes out the window in favor of boasts and bad wordplay (the double entendres of "Taylor Gang" and "withdrawals" hit like rubber swords). The energy and unhinged feeling here is the one redeeming aspect, and if "Danger" went straight into "Shades Of Blue," TAGO would still function pretty well as a whole, with Vic starting off brash, backing it up with well-placed anger, showing its effect on his mental health, struggling to cope with yet another crisis, and then summing it all up-- but then we get the "pop" songs.
"New Bae" and "Liquor Locker" wouldn't necessarily be terrible on their own, but they totally interrupt the flow of this otherwise-well-constructed project. For obvious reasons, their themes don't exactly blend into the EP's fabric, but beyond that, their overall respective sounds just seem watered-down and pandering. "New Bae" is the middle of a Venn Diagram composed of youth-music sonic compasses Travi$ Scott, Justin Bieber, and Rae Sremmurd, none of which Vic seems to share any similarities with, and "Liquor Locker" is an even more outmoded mishmash (whoever thought shooting for the middle of an unholy trinity of Shwayze, Kid Cudi, and Citizen Cope in 2016 was a good idea?). A stealthy Ty Dolla $ign guest spot somewhat saves the latter, but Vic seems so out-of-character and lost throughout both, that TAGO's middle section loses a good deal of the personal, affecting ground its beginning and end gain.
Vic still has a lot to tighten up and define about his career, but let's remember: this is his first project as a certifiable big deal. The fact that he manages to spend the majority of it introducing himself and ruminating on important issues is hugely commendable. A ton of weight rests on his shoulders right now, and There's Alot Going On is subject to harsher critiques as a Roc Nation release than it is as its true identity as a proving ground for a still-evolving star in the making. In his transformation since Innanetape, Vic seemingly created his own big shoes to fill. When you start hanging around Jay and Ye, getting neck tats, and dressing like a punk rocker, people are going to expect some mouth where that money is, and he's certainly got that. Figuring out how best to use it when there's so much money at stake, that's the real challenge.