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In the near distance, somewhere not far over his head, Vic Mensa can hear the growl of a train skating across a bridge in East London. The soft grumble of the iron horse pierces the wintry afternoon, sending shudders down into the photography studio below. It’s an airy workspace carved into the arch of a railway bridge, and it’s now crowded with people and heavy lighting equipment and small talk. The grates of steel and murmuring railroad come dripping through the ceiling, shaking the walls, for a moment startling the small entourage of management and publicists, photographers and label staff.

But Vic Mensa, spread over a plastic chair, sipping at a cool bottle of water, seems to take no notice. He’s fatigued, perhaps jetlagged too. The previous night had been spent on a plane, where he had tried desperately to relax as the mass of aluminium and jet fuel hauled itself across the Atlantic, from his home city of Chicago to London.

He rubs his eyes and fidgets in his chair, as if any moment of quiet will send him crashing into a deep, fairytale-like slumber.

“London is my favourite city,” he says, shaking his head, his midwestern accent worn. “I’ve got so many friends out here, had so many great times… but I’m just too tired.”

He curls his knees up to his chest, pulling his feet in close.

“That plane sleep just ain’t the same, man.”

In the next few weeks he will swap cities like footballers switching jerseys, and his only rest will come in brief fits: on planes, in cars, and if he can find some quiet – on early afternoons in photography studios like these. “My life never has any routine,” he says, “and I live with pressure… I mean, pressure motivates me, but sometimes it also gives me fucking anxiety you know? A lot of the time people think that I have it all figured out… I don’t have it all figured out at all. I take care of myself better than I have done in other points of time, but I never put on a fake smile.”

Nearly five years have passed since Vic Mensa first broke out of Chicago, leaving behind basement shows for cross-country tours, his childhood band Kids These Days for a freeing career as a solo artist. He poured his life into his work, releasing Innanetape, a project that saw him experiment with a melodic, elastic vocal style not dissimilar to that of his friend Chance The Rapper, who started out as a member of Mensa’s Savemoney crew. By 2015, when he was 22, Mensa’s style had evolved and the work started to breed results and recognition. He went on to release two collaborations with hometown hero Kanye West (U Mad and Wolves), and he signed a deal with Jay-Z’s Roc Nation.

“I take care of myself better than I have done in other points of time, but I never put on a fake smile”

But celebrity status has not tamed Vic Mensa. He has been consistently vocal about police brutality and white supremacy in interviews and late-night TV shows, on Twitter and red carpets, feeling a need to dedicate himself to issues larger than his own. And when he steps on stage to perform, like he would do later in Shoreditch that evening, he says he feels pride that his 2017 album The Autobiography best reflects where he finds himself now.

And unlike others tasked with being young and growing old in the spotlight, he’s chosen not to hide his flaws as he’s blossomed and slipped up, faltered and then found his feet again. Instead he has been open: about his delicate mental state and how he has previously tussled with depression, drugs and anxiety, so much so that one evening, while gripped in a volatile acid trip, he even contemplated suicide. “The violence and the lies slipped suicide into my mental health, I did acid in the studio one day and almost killed myself,” he rapped on his 2016 track There’s A Lot Going On.

“In recent music I’ve put out, I’ve never pretended everything is all good,” he tells me, reflecting on those honest admissions. “I’ve just been real about shit, I’ve been real about the fact that I’ve conquered a lot of my fucking demons and shit.”

The most recent battle is not personal but with his own country. It is the era of Donald Trump and divisive politics. The ‘land of the free’ seems to be folding in on itself, trapped in a suspended state of chaos, flitting from tragedy to tragedy, peace replaced by rebellion. And so, Vic, still only 24, now finds himself concerned with trying to mend the sorry state of a once lauded nation.

“I think that fear of the other is on the rise right now,” he says. “And what’s short sighted about those fears is the failure to recognise who profits from them. As human beings, we all experience the same basic range of emotions, our bodies are configured in the same way, we eat the same food, drink the same water, there can’t be that many things that really separate us.”

“What are the five senses of human beings?” he goes on. “Smell, touch, sight, hearing, taste. We all experience these things exactly the same, I don’t understand how different we could be.”

His solution, he argues, is love.

“I think that love can live without freedom but freedom cannot live without love. Slaves loved. We love in poverty, we love in prosperity. But there can’t be freedom without love.”

“I think that fear of the other is on the rise right now”

“I think you determine your own destiny,” he says. “I’ve decided to dedicate myself, in and outside of music, to things bigger than me. I don’t know if I was born with a specific path but I get some answers to ‘why’ when I apply myself to causes that unite rather than isolate.”

But while he attempted to save the world, he also had to save himself. Though he was practicing meditation and taking his medicine and exercising regularly, he still had the tendency to slip away from routine, drifting back into old habits, watching as things slowly fell apart, with no person to blame but himself. So now it seemed that the only obstacle that could prevent Vic Mensa were his own inhibitions.

“Fear?” he says. “I know it very well.”

“I have a very personal relationship with fear. I think that without fear there’s very often not a motivation to stay alive. It’s the lion that makes the gazelle run so fast. With that said, fuck fear, I hate fear — but we need it.”

Photography: Theo Cottle