If you pay attention to new rap, you know who Vic Mensa is. He came up as the lead MC for the Chicago band Kids These Days, then broke off for a solo career, featured on Chance The Rapper’s two biggest tapes, and dropped his own formidable breakout project, INNANETAPE. (You can download Vic’s very first mixtape Straight Up from July 2010 right here.) In 2014 he upped the ante with “Down On My Luck,” his most popular song to date, and this past weekend was the biggest look of his career.
On a record-breaking night for SNL, Vic Mensa crawled out next to Kanye West to perform his part on the intro of Kanye’s as-of-yet untitled next album. It was a groundbreaking moment for Vic Mensa fans and independent hip-hop diehards alike. Everything seems in place for Vic to blow up this year.
As newcomers get acquainted with the young Save Money member, we’ll give you a quick primer on Vic. These songs give a pretty broad view of the young Chicago spitter, from bandleader to solo MC to emerging pop star. Walk with us as we highlight the Five Best Vic Mensa Songs You Need To Know.
1. “Acid Trips to Vegas” (Prod. by Thelonious Martin) 
“Acid Trips to Vegas” is the first song on Vic Mensa’s Soundcloud, and it was recorded in 2010 with Chicago producer Thelonious Martin. It’s a straightforward style from early Vic, complete with a sample of Gary Burton’s “Las Vegas Tango” that finishes off the East Coast vibe of the song. More than anything, this cut shows Vic’s virtuosity, compounded by a variety of different flows. If you can make an overused sample like this exciting, you’re worth something.
2. “Don’t Harsh My Mellow” (2012)
Vic Mensa got his start in 2009 as the lead vocalist of a live Chicago band called Kids These Days with six other artists. They made a name for themselves on the indie Chicago circuit but broke up in May 2013, as it became obvious Vic would be forging his own path. Nonetheless, the band still improved on it’s sound within a four-year lifespan, allowing Vic to experiment with different techniques.
“Don’t Harsh My Mellow” was the intro on the band’s final project, Traphouse Cuts, and it featured a much more cutting, ferocious Vic on the mic. While before the band had Sublime-like sensibilities, this cut sounds angry as Mensa ups the adrenaline for his verse. The band’s biggest pull was often Vic’s verses, but here he shows something different, perhaps foreshadowing how far ahead he was of the rest of the band.
3. “Orange Soda” (Prod. by Cam Of J.U.S.T.I.C.E. League) 
Once Kids These Days officially broke up, Vic didn’t even wait until the next month to drop new music. “Orange Soda” was his breakout song, endearing him to the young and proving his individual talent to the old in one fell swoop. It’s a staple of his live show and serves as a marker of Vic Mensa’s official coming out party.
4. “Hollywood L.A.” (Prod. by Cam of J.U.S.T.I.C.E. League and Tae Beast)
“Orange Soda” made me check for Vic Mensa, but less than two months later, “Hollywood L.A.” made me anticipate INNANETAPE. Whenever an artist can deliver two excellent back-to-back singles, fully packaged with clean visuals, it makes a strong case for that artist’s potential, if not as a star, then as a heavy internet presence with a loyal following. “Hollywood L.A.” basically cemented Vic Mensa as one of the most exciting rappers out at the time, and it started a wave that he’s ridden all the way to SNL.
5. “Down On My Luck” (2014) [Prod. by Vic Mensa & Stefan Ponce]
“Down On My Luck” is the crowning achievement of Vic Mensa’s young career so far. As the only entry on his official VEVO page, his official debut single on Virgin EMI catapulted him into a bubbling demographic – the EDM-meets-rap crowd that Azealia Banks and others have been trying to harness for years now. Teetering at just over 4 million views as of February 17, 2015, “Down On My Luck” is both an extension of that EDM/rap exploration (earlier in 2014 Vic spit over Disclosure’s “When A Fire Starts To Burn”) and a bridge that led Vic to work with blazing hot dance producer Kaytranada on songs like “Wimme Nah” and “Drive Me Crazy.”
“Down On My Luck” also functions as a compass that points to Vic’s next musical direction, which seems to be singing. There are no raps on Kanye West’s “Wolves,” as we find Vic crooning on the song next to global pop superstar Sia. We can’t imagine he’s totally ditching rap, but judging by his latest output, we also can’t picture what he’ll cook up next.