When Otis Mensah turns up to meet me, he’s laughing at himself, with a scratchcard in his hand. “It’s to see if I can afford a PR campaign for my next single. I feel like this next single, Sanctified, I don’t want to just put it out there. We’ve got the music visuals for it and I feel like it would work so well on Noisey, or on Pigeons and Planes.”
Mensah’s saying this is not a tall order by any means. His recent single Oh Jane was, just a couple of weeks ago, picked up by The Needle Drop‘s Anthony Fantano. He’s humble, but Mensah has the assurance of an artist who knows that his music is moving people, and that the industry is starting to take notice.
Watch now: Otis Mensah – Oh Jane
Otis Mensah is a hip-hop artist, make no mistake, but he’s mindful of misconceptions – preferring the label “experimental hip-hop” for himself. Mensah is at pains to highlight that he wants to go beyond the “lyrical-miracle-spiritual rap battler” that he feels people expect him to be. As a teenager, he tells me, he used to be amongst those rappers who “just rapped about being the best,” in a bid to slay their opponents in the bravado-filled rap battle arena. But for Mensah, this was just a phase in his artistic evolution.
“I got to a point where I realised that my favourite artists never did that. The reason they were my favourite artists is because I related to them due to something they were going through, so there was a shared commonality between us. I was a massive fan of Kid Cudi, and I still am. He wasn’t doing anything complex, but he was talking about his depression, his loneliness, his anxiety, his addictions. And the reason why I gravitated towards it is because it was honest and vulnerable.”
“I created this mantra for myself: you’re never really alone because everyone can be lonely.”
It was this revelation that led Mensah to begin developing his exposed writing style, and his focus on the intimate themes of nostalgia, loneliness, and what he calls “existential quarrel.”
“I created this mantra for myself: you’re never really alone because everyone can be lonely. I feel like that’s so important in art. I listened to my favourite artists because they were saying something that I related to. You know when you hear your favourite band or your favourite artist playing something that represents a time in your life – or they sing a lyric that kinda puts your exact state of existence right now into a song – and you just feel, well, everything makes sense, I’m not alone in this whole existence.”
Eventually, it hit home for Mensah, and his whole artistic direction changed. “I’ve been putting out music since I was 14,” he tells me, “and I only ever really got any reaction when I started to be vulnerable.”
The watershed moment came in the form of Days over Damson – a five-track mixtape he wrote after finishing music college at ACM Guildford and moving back home. Focusing on depression, nine-to-five humdrum, and the memory of “more fruitful times from the past,” Damson documents Mensah’s grappling with nostalgia and his struggle to enjoy the present moment – a theme that continues to saturate Mensah’s writing.
“I only ever really got any reaction when I started to be vulnerable”
“I feel like I have this burden of nostalgia on me that’s overarching everything I do. Whether it’s school, a social situation, a relationship – I feel like we’re being stripped of these things, and constantly going through mourning. It’s like death. It’s a constant grieving.
I’m always trying to talk about the present moment, but – it’s crippling – sometimes the present moment doesn’t feel as good as what you put on a pedestal from the past. Which essentially never allows you to be happy, if you walk around with that mindset.”
I ask Mensah if he ever thinks about the future, and it’s clear that he does – in the context of music. He’s been discovering jazz, and he compares the experience with what it felt like when he first discovered hip-hop.
Watch now: Otis Mensah – Fisheye Jazz
Recent months have seen Mensah working with producers from around the world, including Atlanta-based Elijah Bane, Oskar Rice, isaacxhopes, and, most frequently, Berlin-based prodigy the intern, who he worked with on Lily X Rose, Oh Jane, and his latest release, Fisheye Jazz. It’s the intern who Mensah credits with his new direction.
“A lot of me getting into jazz is to do with him, because he’s massively into jazz. When I heard the instrumental of Oh Jane I thought it was incredible. The time signatures he uses are really different, and I’ve never heard anything quite like it. I didn’t know how to write to it. I was like, this is crazy!”
Mensah’s live performances have taken a similar direction, seeing him collaborate with The Moonbathers – members of the Sheffield-based Blancmange Lounge collective. His dream at the moment, Mensah tells me, is to “get the most crazy cosmic jazz and rap over it.”
With dogged consistency, Mensah has been turning out singles for some months now. It’s deliberate, he tells me. While the internet makes it easy to discover new music, it’s harder than ever for emerging talent to cut through the noise and get heard. This “oversaturation,” as Otis puts it, “can be a blessing, but it’s also a problem.”
And this struggle to be heard is the subject of one of his forthcoming releases, 11 blogs, which, ironically, discusses Mensah’s attempts to reach The Needle Drop‘s Anthony Fantano – which were finally rewarded.
The big one for Mensah, however, is Sanctified. It’s produced by Elijah Bane, with music visuals by GRIT MULTIMEDIA.
Subscribe to Mensah’s YouTube channel to hear new releases as soon as they’re out.