Vic Mensa Infuses Life Lessons Into Free Format on ‘Hooligans’ EP

Vic Mensa is a particular admirable figure in the hip-hop community, with a record of social activism that stands out from most of his peers in the scene. He founded the “SavemoneySavelife” institution, dedicated to fighting racism, and promoting arts and health in his hometown of Chicago. His 2017 debut “The Autobiography” was a fittingly-titled account of life experiences that clearly justified such an undertaking. His latest release “Hooligans” is less focused on biographical content, and more freely varied in its subject matter, but still peppered with bits of documentary realism, confessional reflection, and sentiments born of personal experience to give it a similar overall feel.  

Opener “Dancing In the Streets” couldn’t be more different from the incomprehensibly flamboyant Mick Jagger and David Bowie cover of the same name that will forever be one of the eighties’ lease comprehensible moments. Mena’s song is triumphant it tone, starting with a provocative declaration of “Hooligans!” and boastful talk of owning the streets where Mensa grew up, while simultaneously painting a picture of their grittiness. As he’s always done, he calls attention to police brutality, this time is a somewhat cryptic way, saying, “If the law don’t kill me first, the doors commit suicide.” Another standout line is “Inside the schizophrenic mind, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Fly,” as this spin seems more hip-hop in spirit, in line with a a genre traditionally more preoccupied with swag and good living that neurosis, doom and gloom. Repeated calls of “Ali Boyame, ayy,” the Bantu chant spurring on Muhammad Ali in his historic match with George Foreman, add a nice touch.  

“Dark Things” has a chorus that sounds like it was written by a seventh grader, and received with a wide congratulatory grin by a teacher who valued self-esteem over quality. Then, the verses get decidedly dark, with Mensa tackling everything from drugs, gold diggers, and general personal anxieties. At one point, he says, “Crush a blue pill, put it in a red cup / Call up the plug, now I’m in The Matrix / Like I’m Morpheus, turn my morphine up.” Anyone who has seen the legendary 1999 film will likely appreciate the description of the allure of complacence, and the temptation to choose ignorance over bliss. Next, “Some Trouble,” featuring Korporate and Ty Dolla $ign, shaw all three of them trying their hand at the ubiquitous, bubbly sing-rap style, and impressively all pulling it off exceptionally well. It’s a welcoming switch of a mood from the comparatively tough-guy posturing of the preceding couple tracks. What sounds like a fairly typical hood love song, of sorts, a few minutes of effusive praise in proudly vulgar terms, suddenly ends in a brief succession of unfriendly voicemail clips, ostensibly justifying the song’s title, albeit open-endedly.  

“Rowdy” promptly amps things up again – easily the hardest, liveliest track so far. It’s in the tradition of songs like Lil Jon & the Eastside Boys’ “Put Yo Hood Up,” or more recently Sheck Wes’ singles. There’s a little trap flavor to the beat, and it’s an enjoyable moment for anyone who appreciates hip-hop for its edge, energy and the fun of its juvenile punk subversion. The mood continues into “Reverse,” with another trap beat, but less in your face. On this one, Mensa truly shines as a rapper – not in terms of offering any particularly thought provoking content – but merely in terms of how expertly he’s able to consistently string together often seemingly words together in ways that sound undeniably badass. He’s got it all down – the nonchalant workplay, the fluidity that allows him to effortlessly alternate between fiercely rapid meters and laidback, laconic flows. Eazy-E makes an appearance, also showing in top form, and the whole track is solid.

“Klonopin” features another irritatingly simple, repetitive chorus, but does has some classic hip-hop lewd wordplay, like “Shawty just a thot she a hypothesis,” and “She magna cum laude, I made her cum louder.” It finds Mensa bragging about having always been anti-establishment, bringing up for example how we never went to college, but has gone on to lecture at Harvard. You’ve got to hand it to him.  “The 1 That Got Away / No Shoes,” begins with Mensa drawing the titular line from Jay-Z’s “Song Cry,” and picks up a more restrained beat, with a background of soul vocal samples, before erupting into an almost gospel, inspirational chorus. It’s a heartwarming song about remembering a past romance gown awry, and humbly reflecting on what could have been. Finally, “Deserve It” brings things to closure on a decidedly positive note, serving as a bit of a foil and resolution to earlier track “Dark Things,” with Mensa ultimately reminding himself, “I put the work in, I earned it, I did this shit on purpose / I know I’m fuckin’ worth it.”

Spanning only eight songs, only one passing the four minute mark, there’s a casualness to the structure of “Hooligans – EP” that matches the cohesiveness of its content. This isn’t to say it comes across as disjointed, but rather as refreshing in how it sporadically alternates between hard-hitting bangers, easygoing numbers, and more deeply personal fare. Mensa displays plenty versatility on the mic, and apart from a couple ill-advised choruses, sounds in top form throughout. And while he concludes with the preachy, self-aggrandizement that is all too commonly mere inflated bombast in hip-hop, he has the track record to warrant it.

Hooligans is available Dec. 14 on Apple Music.