The gift bags at Vic Mensa's recent album release show contained a foil pack of Advil capsules, a gelatinous ice bag and a loose Band-Aid. They were distributed liberally at the Break Bar in Lower Manhattan — a place where patrons down a pint, then go to a makeshift concrete firing range to shatter the glass against the wall. The message was clear: This is music that can leave you bruised. Mensa has been an aesthete throughout his entire career, trying out bass-heavy trap, breezy lightheaded soul and neon-lit new jack. But now, with a new band, he's taking aim at hardcore, and all the trappings that entails.
"[Hip-hop and R&B producer] No I.D. was the person who convinced me to release it under a different name, because it's such a departure and such a different sound from the rap stuff I've been doing," he says, outside the bar, with his back against a gigantic black van. "I really look at it like my N.E.R.D," he adds, referencing Pharrell Williams' rap-rock project.
Mensa's band is called 93PUNX, sharing the same name as his similarly patched-up fashion line. Their freshly released self-titled debut album — executive produced by Travis Barker — is a 14-track breakneck tour of every texture in heavy music. "definition of a fuck-boi" shimmers like a vintage MTV2 Sum 41 cut, packed with a particularly poisonous moral core targeted at would-be clout chasers. "Fistfight!" positions itself as an anthem for any Worldstar-ready parking-lot brawl, complete with a Circle Jerks breakdown on the tail end. (When the band played the song midway through the set, Mensa used the momentum to start a mosh pit all by himself.) "bad brain" lays out some of Mensa's core influences, with a very well-curated sample from hardcore legend and Bad Brains frontman H.R. On the closer, the synth-drowned deathrattle "Goodbye 2 Heartbreak," you'll find the record's most direct thesis. In the midst of a litany of pregnant farewells — to addiction, to taxes, to unrequited love — Mensa adds, "goodbye to 'Down on My Luck,'" a reference to the most famous song under the 26-year-old's name.
Few people in this industry are more prepared for this sort of pivot. Mensa was born and raised a punk. He's a lifelong Clash fan, a career skateboarder and a proud radical. The windup to 93PUNX's unveiling has been marked by a long campaign to push the buttons of everyone involved in America's regressive and energized far-fight movement. First was the video for "3 Years Sober" — which has Mensa do his lips and eyelashes, and dress in a Confederate flag–emblazoned gown before playing tug-of-war with an exceptionally skeevy Mike Pence. But what landed him on the front page of Breitbart was "Camp America," an acoustic, willfully ersatz commercial jingle, marked with a clip that features a nightstick-brandishing Mensa locking up white kids in those extremely topical cages at the border.
The song is an insurgent choice for a lead single, but Mensa made sure that "Camp America" was also the poppiest, most melodic track on the record. ("It's an ignorant, arrogant, terrorist heritage. You can finally be an American," he sings, in a surprisingly rangy falsetto.) "It was 100 percent satirical," says Mensa. "We wanted to be subversive with the messaging, we wanted to make the music sound happy, and pair it with a video that's more overt." Maybe you think his dissertation is a little too on-the-nose, but Mensa has made clear that "Camp America"'s inspiration came from none other than ICE Director Matthew Albence, who made headlines this spring by comparing the government's border detention facilities to literal summer camp. Life imitates art, even at its grimmest.
The thing is, though, "Camp America" isn't even the most political song on the album. That title belongs to "United States of Evil," on which Mensa unfurls an apocalyptic death-metal trudge. The lyrics leave nothing to the imagination: "Burn the White House down," cranked up to 11, repeated ad nauseum, screamed with the sort of acidic clarity that makes sure that nobody can misinterpret the message. (Just imagine if Fox News realized this song exists.) The squealing, gasoline-soaked guitar hook on the fringes of the mix? That belongs to none other than Tom Morello, who's become a maestro of the well-placed guest appearance of late. "I love Tom Morello, Tom Morello is a hero of mine, we were trying to figure out how to fit him in the record. I really wanted to write something with him, and unfortunately didn't have time," says Mensa. "But burn down the White House? That just fits Tom Morello."
All that carnage aside, there are plenty of intimate glimpses on 93PUNX. "Persephone," in particular, has the clean, oxidized glint of a Linkin Park ballad, in which Mensa laments a torrid dead relationship — the kind of breakup that gunks up your nervous system. He returns to that theme on the aforementioned "Goodbye 2 Heartbreak," which he introduces with a cinematic "We fell in love in California." Elsewhere Mensa digs deep on addiction — on "numb" our protagonist sings about bringing drugs to a party, only to be met with a chilling chorus where he's forced to admit that "they just don't work like they used to."
Mensa tells me that those charged themes are more spiritual and universal in nature than you might think: For instance, right now, he says he's addicted to reading the news rather than to any elicit substance. Heartbreak, too, is less specific. "More so than a romantic breakup, it's a breakup from condition, a breakup from the past," says Mensa. "In order to take such a departure, you gotta break up with what you've been doing." It's rare to hear such a heaviness, and world-weariness, come from an artist so young. He reminds me almost of Neil Young, who sang about getting old on "Heart of Gold" at the age of 27.
But maybe these are the creatives we've inherited in 2019. This is a time of political chaos, economic anguish and ecological helplessness, and nobody is more native to the undertow than people like Mensa, who are left to make sense of the rubble. The last couple years of music has seen a fertile hybridization between hip-hop and hardcore — Soundcloud teens like Rico Nasty, ZillaKami and JPEGMAFIA, adapting what they learned in emo, punk and nu-metal with what they learned between the bass drums. Vic Mensa is just the latest to prove that for as much division and genre loyalties that we think might exist in the culture, defiance often sounds the same no matter where it's found.
"In its essence, rap and punk are the same idea. It's antiestablishment. It's counterculture. It's commentary. Sometimes they deal with the darker aspects of humanity. They're explosive, they're volatile," he says. "I've always seem them as intertwined."