5 Things to Know About JAY-Z’s New Protégé, Rapper Vic Mensa
For Vic Mensa, the fresh young face on JAY-Z‘s Roc Nation label, stardom seems to suit him well. Whether he’s partnering with UGG for a full-on fashion campaign or raging with Jonah Hill at a concert, the 24-year-old Chicago-native (born Victor Kwesi Mensah) doesn’t just look the part of the next big rapper; he’s living it.
He’s already been nominated for a Grammy thanks to helping pen Kanye West‘s 2015 hit “All Day,” and now, with his own highly anticipated debut album The Autobiography out, he’s poised to make superstar mentor JAY-Z even more proud.
Here are five things to know about the buzzy new star climbing his way to the top of hip hop.
- His album listening party attracted some major (Is that Beyoncé!?) attention.
As the protégé of rap’s biggest star, Vic Mensa’s already got some pretty high-profile fans, the most notable of whom made waves when she arrived at his new album’s listening party in LA. In her first public appearance since the birth of her and Jay’s twins, Sir and Rumi, Beyoncé graced the event celebrating the upcoming release of Mensa’s album The Autobiography, by stealthy entering the event through a back entrance.
But that’s not all! T.I. also dropped by to wish the rap prince well.
- He’s worked so closely with JAY-Z, they recorded their new albums simultaneously.
“He was doing 4:44 at the same time I was doing my album, so we were never too far away. I was able to really have him involved in the process of sculpting this album to be what it became,” Mensa tells PEOPLE of his iconic mentor.
“JAY-Z is somebody that has given me freedom to grow and learn…to be the truest representation of myself,” he adds. “I could be impulsive and sometimes reactionary and emotional about things. [JAY-Z] is somebody that has helped me pull back at times and keep the focus where it needs to be.”
- Growing up, his biggest influence was actually JAY-Z’s former rival, Nas.
Despite his close relationship with “99 Problems” hitmaker, Mensa grew up identifying with another artist, JAY-Z’s onetime rival, Nas.
“A big influence on me is Nas,” he says. “My album is built around storytelling and Nas is one of the greatest storytellers of all time.”
Growing up, Mensa did everything he could to emulate the legendary Illmatic emcee, who’s known for his intricate, realistic depictions of life in low-income neighborhoods. “I studied Nas’ lyrics and his songs and his stories to the point where I was word for word, line for line, recreating them. I would take his lyrics and his songs and print them out and then write a song with the same syllable count, the same types of lines.”
As for that old beef between Nas and his current rap sensei, it was a little before his time. Still Mensa says he favored JAY-Z’s diss track, “Takeover,” at least for a while. “I actually never listened to [Nas’ response track, “Ether”] until like last year… so I always had the idea that [JAY-Z] had indisputably won.”
- He’s a blackbelt.
Artistic expression isn’t the only way Mensa likes to let off steam; he’s also a third degree blackbelt. “When I was kid I started to do martial arts,” Mensa tells PEOPLE. “I did it until I was about 15.”
He first became a blackbelt around the age of 12. What’s his specialty? “It’s called Tong Too Do, it’s a Korean martial art.”
And it’s not just for show, either. Mensa added with a laugh that he’s “definitely” had to use it.
- He won’t let controversy slow him down; after all, he’s a rockstar.
“You know, ‘rockstar life’ that’s something that sometimes I live, but it’s not like I wake up and go to sleep a rockstar,” says Mensa. That “rockstar life,” however, can sometimes get him into trouble: in mid July, Mensa pled no contest to a gun-related charge in California, which will allow him to avoid jail time in favor of a few fines.
“You’re in this position where you’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t,” he says of the incident. “I am a legal gun owner in Illinois and because I’m not from California, I’m an illegal gun owner in California.”
Drama aside, he’s laser focused on his music. Mensa credits his “deep musical knowledge and Rolodex of inspirations,” for the eclectic sound of the album, which boasts features from Pharrell, The-Dream and Weezer. So how does Mensa see himself? “I’m a real, live rockstar in the flesh,” he says, before adding with a laugh, “but you’re not supposed to call yourself one.”