WVAU’s #9 Song of 2016: "16 Shots" by Vic Mensa


Sean McCarthy

Part way through the first verse of Vic Mensa‰’s bombastic “16 Shots‰” he drops the lines, “And we all know its cause cause he black/Shot ‰em 16 times, how fucked up is that?‰” The track, a fiery response to the 2014 death of Laquan McDonald, marks Mensa‰’s emergence as the voice of Chicago‰’s youth. After disappearing from the public eye following 2013‰’s Innanetape, a comparatively lighthearted effort, he resurfaced in early 2015, performing on SNL with Kanye West and releasing the Kanye-assisted single “U Mad‰Û. None of these releases could have predicted the political nature of “16 Shots‰Û, which he debuted live at a Flint, Michigan benefit concert on February 29.

The track opens slowly, with Mensa rapping over just the song‰’s main synth melody, and as he continues through the first verse the remaining elements of the beat slowly come in, climaxing as he breaks into the songs explosive hook, “1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11/ Fuck 12‰Û. The anger and pain is evident in Mensa‰’s voice throughout the track, and elevates the urgency felt in the lyrics. While at the surface Mensa‰’s words are basic and to the point, simply reading the lyrics robs the song of its most powerful tool. The autotuned screaming in the hook only adds to this anger, and the bridge before and after the third verse, “There‰’s a war on drugs and the drugs keep winning/There‰’s a war on guns but the guns keep winning‰Û, enhances the feeling of hopelessness.

The connection between hip-hop and social activism is well-documented, and on “16 Shots‰” Mensa harkens back to early-90‰’s political rap. The track‰’s open threats of violence against city officials (“And when you see Van Dyke/Tell him don‰’t bring a knife to a gunfight‰Û) and police officers (“We on 16th ridin‰’ by the police station/We might make a pork rind out of pig, bro‰Û) bear striking resemblance to the lyrics of NWA-era Ice Cube or Paris. The lyrics convey a certain sense of desperation, a nihilistic worldview that differs from this generation‰’s mainstream “conscious‰” rappers such as Kendrick Lamar and J Cole. Nothing in “16 Shots‰” is hopeful. It doesn‰’t offer solutions to the issues that plague poor black communities, but no other song this year encapsulates the feeling hopelessness as well.

What separates “16 Shots‰” from “Fuck the Police‰” or “Straight Outta Compton‰” is how rooted it is in fact. The song concludes with audio of Laquan McDonald‰’s attorney Jeffrey Neslund narrating the dashcam video of his death at the hands of Chicago police officers, lending credence to Mensa‰’s views. Lines such as “They threw a little girl down on the pavement/screaming stay out the way bitch‰” reference real events that Mensa has experienced in Chicago over the past year. The truth behind these lines makes his message hit all that much harder.

“16 Shots‰” is a dark song for a dark time. The Southside of Chicago has made a name in the hip-hop scene recently as the birthplace of Drill music. Artists such as Chief Keef, Lil Durk, Fredo Santana, and Lil Reese exploded on the internet with songs and videos showing an unfiltered look into the lives, and the mentality, of those living in one of the nation‰’s most dangerous neighborhoods. Utilizing simple lyrics, often full of references to killing members of rival gangs, and simple beats derivative of Atlanta-based Trap music, songs like Keef‰’s “Don‰’t Like‰” and “3Hunna‰” gained popularity without sacrificing any of their authenticity. “16 Shots‰” deals with these same emotions and experiences, but directs it towards the what Mensa sees as the real issue, constant oppression by a corrupt police force.