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Vic Mensa Represents Rap At A Crossroads

Music
Photo by Frank Ockenfels III

He can go any way he wants

Being the opener at a stadium is hard. People are still streaming in, and the empty space is much less conspicuous when it’s the back of a small venue versus the seemingly endless empty seats of an arena. Still, that’s Vic Mensa’s task, priming a crowd of eager Brooklynites for their borough’s favorite son, Jay Z, to take them on a 32-track trip down memory lane.

Vic is by far the most logical choice to be the opener for the 4:44 tour. He’s signed to Jay’s Roc Nation and put out his debut album, The Autobiography, through a joint venture with Capitol Records. Though he and Jay have never collaborated on a track together, they’ve appeared together publicly and often compliment each other.

Jay has praised Vic heavily in the past, calling him a “very special talent” and a “once in a lifetime artist.” The young rapper describes himself as a “superfan of Hov’s,” and once said, "That's one of those relationships where I felt like I knew him before I met him, because I was so in depth with the music.”

But beyond that, Vic is part of what seems like an increasingly small pool of rappers who care about artists like Jay Z with the same passion as the most die-hard fans in attendance at Barclays. As rap has moved into this new frontier of rapid rises to fame, unpublicized label deals, and emo-inspired intonation, it can feel like the remaining legacy acts are more or less making music in a completely different genre than the fresh crop of rhymers.

Like so much of our society, it seems like rap has bifurcated, and that the divide is harder to bridge than ever. Despite being just 24 years old and from one of the most exciting cities in hip-hop, Vic falls firmly into the establishment camp—or so it seems at a quick glance. After all, his career path has been as traditional as any young rapper; he released a couple mixtapes, then signed a major deal and worked for years on his debut, dropping a handful of warm-up projects to prime fans before then. He sought out veteran mentors in Kanye West and Jay Z and had his LP produced largely by No I.D., who was also the sonic architect behind 4:44Compared to his friend and fellow Chicago star Chance the Rapper, not to mention the slew of teenage MCs who’ve taken rap by storm, Vic’s approach paints him as an anomaly.

And yet sonically, Vic has planted his flag firmly in the new wave. He sings as much as he raps, channeling punk and emo in ways that aren’t entirely different than a Lil Uzi Vert or a Travis Scott but is more embellished and conventionally structured. He takes the stage in a bright red leather outfit that looks like he could’ve done a late-night set at CBGB if it was still around and carries himself differently than a traditional rapper would on such a massive stage. Instead of constantly turning up and bouncing around, he sits cross-legged on the floor while singing the harrowing “Homewrecker,” and grips the mic tenderly for the range-stretching, uniting “We Could Be Free” and the autobiographical “Wings,” in which he delves deep into the cycle of addiction and depression he’s been battling.

Speaking of that, the rapper has been incredibly candid about his mental health over the past few years. He’s talked about addiction and even suicidal thoughts that’s he’s faced. And beyond his own personal struggle, he’s also discussed the lack of options beyond medicating that exist in our society, going so far as to call drugs like Xanax and Percocet “murder weapon[s]” in an interview with Billboard.

At a time when rap’s youth movement is looking critically at its drug use after a stretch of heavy prescription abuse that culminated in the tragic passing of Lil Peep in November, it’s more important than ever for artists to be articulating the link between using these dangerous substances and the underlying, often undiagnosed issues of anxiety and depression that are often the catalyst for self-medication.

Vic is a deep thinker and an outspoken activist whose actions more than corroborate what he says on record and through social media. At times, Vic’s incredibly considered approach can make his tracks feel labored, like “Down for Some Ignorance,” one of the cuts from The Autobiography that he includes in his set. It samples a Saul Williams song of the same name and is meant to be both a turn-up anthem and commentary on the lack of opportunities for black youth from his part of Chicago. Played live, it loses some of that subtext and becomes a solid but unremarkable party cut. “Rollin’ Like a Stoner” is in the same boat, bogged down by a clumsy hook, though he goes for broke performing both.

Vic punctuates the middle of his set with “U Mad,” the West-featuring in-your-face anthem that first brought him into the consciousness of many casual fans. The thunderous synth horns make it one of his ideal records for a venue of this size, and he rips through it with a searing, snarling bravado. But one subtle revision illustrates how Vic’s mentality has changed since the song dropped back in April 2015. The line “All praise to Allah, not Ramadan but these bitches fast” is now performed as “I need that bag fast,” a decidedly less punchy punch line but one that shows his evolution into a more considerate writer.

Vic isn’t ready to be the mouthpiece of his generation, he’s still honing his identity as a solo artist while straddling a tricky line between the superstars he reveres and the emotive, gritty scene his recent music embodies. But by taking on the unique challenge of opening for a hip-hop legend and not being subsumed by the moment, he is showing that he has a shot to be an essential bridge between two radically different branches of rap and that he’s unafraid to leverage that platform to broach weighty, deeply personal topics. Chance has been candid about his own battles with drugs, but he’s gained his massive young audience through his embrace of radical positivity and has proudly bucked the label system. Vic‘s earnestness about his personal demons, as well as his decision to approach his career from a more traditional standpoint, present him with a unique opportunity to try and broaden the reach of major label rap at a time when many young artists are doing everything they can to seem untethered to the system.

During Jay Z’s set, the MC shares some wisdom he gained from through his well-publicized personal struggles. “If you find yourself in an uncomfortable place don’t run from the pain, run towards it,” he says.

Vic may never have the plethora of hits that earns him a stadium headliner slot, but in his best moments as Jay’s opener, he shows flashes of being able to speak to a crowd in this unique environment as candidly as Jay would, but in a style that could appeal to young impressionable fans who’ve long since written off Jay Z as a dinosaur. 

Nail polish is for novices

Fashion label The Blonds is known for its high-intensity looks that you'd only wear if you wanted to stand out (and who doesn't?). For its runway shows, wild press-on nails are the beauty step that can't be missed. So, since the brand has partnered with CND since it was founded, we thought it best to get prepped for the show with Jan Arnold, CND's co-founder.

See why you should take your nail look from a zero to a 10, in the video above.

Credits:
Shot by Charlotte Prager
Edited by Gretta Wilson
Produced by Alexandra Hsie
Production Assistant: Polina Buchak
Featuring Jan Arnold of CND Nails and The Blonds

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Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures.

It would've been nice if someone said the word "fat"

Back in November, Rebel Wilson claimed to be the first plus-sized lead in a romantic comedy when she appeared on Ellen to talk about her role in Isn't It Romantic. Wilson was not only wrong, but she was—even if inadvertently—erasing the work of Black plus-size actresses like Queen Latifah and Mo'Nique, both of whom have expansive resumes that include romantic comedies.

Wilson's comment isn't the first example of white women taking up a little too much space in the fat acceptance ethos. It's actually quite common. But there is a reason why women like Wilson—women who are blonde, pretty, successful, and white—get put front and center in calls for body positivity. In the same way that feminism—the movement from which body positivity was born—has often failed to address how gender intersects with other identities like race and class; so, too, has body positivity been championed as a cause for otherwise privileged women. And that's why it's no surprise that Isn't It Romantic, which aspires to be both a spot-on mockery of rom-coms and a celebration of body positivity, is actually a perfect example of how very white both the movie genre and the body positivity movement tend to be.

In the film, Wilson plays Natalie, an architect based in New York, who is single and plus-sized—the archetypal rom-com underdog. Very early on in the movie, she endures the double humiliation of both being hit by a runaway food cart and then accosted by its owner for not stopping it with her "cement truck"-like body. At work, Natalie is similarly disrespected: The office manager hands off troubleshooting tasks to Natalie; another colleague always tasks Natalie to throw out his trash; her assistant Whitney (Betty Gilpin) won't stop watching movies (rom-coms, naturally) while in the office; and Natalie is so afraid to present her ideas for more innovative parking garage designs that she isn't even widely known in the firm as an architect, and is treated like an intern.

But is Natalie just a doormat? Or is it that she isn't asking for what she wants? And isn't very nice about not getting it? If Natalie's life is any example, the bar on suffering is set pretty low for white women. In her personal life, Natalie lives alone with her dog, and seems to be pretty well-off, financially; her best friend is actually her slacker assistant, Whitney, and she's close with another coworker, Josh (Adam Devine), who gives Natalie constant emotional support. She's decidedly anti-romantic, having been told by her mother from a young age that there's no such thing as real-life fairy tales; she's level-headed and practical. But also, she's filled with self-loathing. This leads her to be crass, sarcastic, and disconnected from people. And it was this last part that was hard for me. As a fat Black woman who grew up broke, does not have an assistant, and would get fired if I didn't do my job well, it was hard, if not impossible, to root for her.

For Natalie, though, everything changes when she bangs her head while fighting off a mugger. Her mundane life is tinted through rosy rom-com glasses. Suddenly, all the things that sucked about her life are gone, and everything is beautiful and perfect. But was her life so bad before? It didn't really seem to be.

And yet, looking around the theater at the mostly white, female audience, I accepted that my feelings didn't seem to be shared. But that almost seems to be by design; this feels like a movie for a white, female audience. There is only one person of color in the movie who even has a name: It's Isabelle (Priyanka Chopra), who shows up about halfway through the film—after everything has been rom-com filtered—as a yoga ambassador and swimsuit model. But a name is all Isabella has. A supporting character at best, she doesn't have any connection to anyone other than her white boyfriend, and is sketchily drawn. We learn nothing of her familial or ethnic background, and, even when she is shown at her wedding, there is nobody from her family celebrating with her. This huge oversight is particularly bizarre, given that Natalie has already bemoaned the lack of diversity in romantic films.

Another huge oversight? The presence of the word "fat." I don't think I heard it used a single time. Natalie only references her weight indirectly, by commenting on the appearance of straight-sized women; when talking about her own body, the word "fat" is replaced with "girl like me." But by ignoring this aspect of herself, and refusing to address it head-on, Natalie is succumbing to the same fatphobia that shapes her world, whether she identifies it as being a problem or not.

Before her life becomes a rom-com, Natalie feels invisible at work and in the world. Some of this is certainly her fault, but fatphobia is also at play. Fatphobia chips away at the humanity of fat people from different angles. It means that Natalie gets used to being dehumanized; she doesn't expect others to have empathy for her when she's physically hurt, because they don't value her body. And it's no coincidence that Natalie's fantasy world includes a magically bigger apartment with unlimited clothing options, because discrimination against fat people isn't just a matter aesthetics and preferences—it affects everything from our ability to dress ourselves to our ability to make and save money, since there's a price to pay for being fat, even if it's just having to pay more to travel. Just as much as gender and race intersect with fat bodies, so, too, do economics and class.

I knew I could count on a plus-sized white comedian to take down a genre of films that prioritized thin women. But I ventured to see if Wilson could go further than that, and challenge what it means to be white and well-off and fat in the process; it isn't just about taking down rom-coms but about doing so in a way that isn't just a mouthpiece for white feminist values. But, in the end, that isn't what happened. Isn't It Romantic is fine, but it needed to do more than target an audience of girls who are 10 to 30 pounds overweight and still too jolted by the word "fat" to ever apply it to themselves, so they go for acceptable alternatives, like curvy, plus-sized—or thicc, if they're hip. But I'm not afraid to say I'm fat, I'm just disappointed I will be waiting even longer to see a realistic reflection of that experience onscreen.

Isn't It Romantic is in theaters now.