“Memories on 47th Street haunt us,” is one of countless hometown oriented bars Vic Mensa raps on his debut studio album, The Autobiography. Streamed early through NPR ahead of its July 28, 2017 official release, The Autobiography is Vic Mensa’s most mature work to date, quite literally emphasizing its namesake with anecdotal references to his parents, deceased brother and family members, and of course, the ever-represented 47th Street.
Curiosity begs the question, “What’s the significance of 47th Street?” Plenty of rappers namedrop their childhood haunts, with chants like “Hoover Street!” at ScHoolboy Q sets or shout-outs to Weston Road by Drake becoming as predictable as a four-count beat drop by Pharrell.
Vic Mensa spares no expense at ingraining his childhood home address into the minds of listeners. For Vic, however, the intersection plays a greater role in his album’s message than a mere shout-out. According to an interview with the Chicago Tribune’s Greg Kot, 47th Street, in Chicago’s South Side, “Represents a loss of innocence, a crossroads,” pointing in particular to the album’s intro track “Memories on 47th Street.” Vic recalls the juxtaposition of growing up in a two parent household while being privy to the “inequalities of the ghetto,” from his perch on 47th Street.
Like any of America’s cities however, Chicago is home to a bevy of numerical streets, in this case running latitudinal from the eastern border of Lake Michigan to the western reaches of O’Hare International Airport. Despite 47th itself stretching some 8 miles from Lake Michigan until it’s bisected by South Central Avenue, Vic kindly pinpoints his home radius at the intersection of 47th and Woodlawn, about a mile north of Hyde Park and barely half a mile from the banks of Lake Michigan.
Vic gives listeners a glimpse into his world across The Autobiography’s hour long runtime, offering detailed narratives of racial profiling from the police, overt drug abuse and more. His continual comparison of the crime and corruption he witnessed to the lovingness of his family is partially symbolic of the history of 47th Street and, more generally, the Hyde Park area of Chicago’s South Side.
The initial purchase of the Hyde Park area in 1853 came at the discretion of a New York Lawyer by the name of Paul Cornell. Cornell aspired to turn a profit by deeding the land to the Illinois Central Railroad; in return Cornell received a train station on 53 Street and daily trips to Central Chicago, where he would sell wealthy Chicagoans on his new, upscale neighborhood. The neighborhood would don the moniker Hyde Park, inspired by the equally wealthy areas of New York (hometown of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt) and London of the same name.
Continual growth in Hyde Park in the 1800s led to the introduction of both the University of Chicago, as well as the World’s Colombian Exposition of 1893. The additional traffic encouraged an economic and residential boom leading up to the 1930s, at which point a racial overhaul swept through the neighborhood. According to Susan O’Connor Davis, author of Chicago’s Historic Hyde Park, the community transitioned from one affiliated with richness, where, “baseball started with the efforts of Albert Spalding, the Yellow Taxi had its foundations here, [and] Julius Rosenwald of Sears lived.” Overtime, the demographics shifted, “now 50-50 white and black,” and racially charged fears of crime sprouted, ultimately leading to white flight and the black population boomed by over 206 percent.
Where Vic picks up, some 40 years after the explosive expansion of black residents in Hyde Park and subsequently 47th Street, he contrasts debased imagery with that of prosperity, albeit familial wealth as opposed to Hyde Park’s monetary focus of the 1800s. Lines like, “Gunshots outside my window, drug deals out by the Citgo / But mama always made sure the tooth fairy found my pillow” aid in encompassing Vic’s fondness for his youth, while never straying far from the pervasive potential existential crises. Vic’s storytelling runs at a mile a minute on The Autobiography, an album that derails apologetic narratives in favor of clear cut, passion driven lyricism.