Time to Stop Sleeping on Vince Staples
Vince Staples isn’t for everyone. I’m not saying that in the “hip hop was better in the 90s when they sold actual crack cocaine to make money from time to time as a prerequisite to street cache” way. Sometimes Vince Staples isn’t even for me, his deadpan, on point delivery that too often crosses into social commentary, intended or not, can be jarring for someone not in the right head space at the time of listening. But argumentatively, he is lyrically exceptional and the actual tales he spins in his rhymes are way to resonant with modern day. It’s not quite conscious (although I guess I should say “woke” now) rap, but it’s something in between. It also helps that that shit bangs.
Let me explain the deadpan part, because it really is one of the essential parts of Staples. Drake’s delivery fluctuates between the cadence of someone walking home from the club alone at 3 am or in a cab with a group of homies having used the phrase “badmon ting” for the first time that night. Chance has a light-footed skip across the beat; Young Thug slithers in between melodies while someone like Schoolboy Q knocks down the door and swaggers in with the heaviest of foot. Vince Stares you in the eye and speaks. He’s like a news anchor delivery your nightly dose of “lack of faith in humanity.”
Closely affiliated with Odd Future, though never an actual member despite popular misconceptions, Staples’ first EP — Hell Can Wait — dropped in the now distant 2014. He followed that up with an increasingly solid and possibly a top 10 album of the year Summertime in 2015. Recently he dropped Prima Donna.
If you’ve been listening from the start, the common theme across all three is the plight of a young black man, trying to hold his sanity together in the face of… well, quite literally everything. On “War Ready”, of Prima Donna he literally raps “a wise man once said that a black man is better off dead, so I’m war ready.” It expands on the themes he dipped strongly into on Summertime ’06:
Know when change gon’ come like Obama would say
But they shootin’ everyday ‘round my mama and them way
So we put a AK where Kiana and them stay
And even earlier on Hell Can Wait
Scared of the future
Running from the past
Like she’s staring in the grave
While you staring her ass
Young, dumb in the brave heart
Numb from the pain
I strain from the tears
Yeah, she stuck in her ways
Hip hop is rooted in reality of Black America, but while a lot of modern music either chooses to dull the edges of it, abstaining from certain facts (if not glamorizing some), Staples’ rap is that of a documentarian. His delivery flows perfectly into the subject matter, your nightly CNN hood report. He doesn’t try to round the reality into a consumable package you would be comfortable in, he pushes it upon you matter-of-factly, yours to deal with in whichever way you choose.
At the same time, while someone like Kendrick Lamar advocates change and praises positivity using tracks like “Alright” or “i,” Vince has no such assumptions. He states the reality of things in the moment rather than idolizing the hypothetical change that white America seems reluctant to provide. “My n***a just focus, I’m tryin’ to paint you a picture
We stuck in the moment.” In a way, he is stuck in his own reality with his own lyrics. At this point one has to wonder whether or not the subject matter itself will start to stretch thin by a second full LP, but unless change is going to come, why would it if it continues to reflect it’s reality.
Vince exerts himself across tracks, both physically and mentally. In an interview he once said that he is not aiming to advocate for one way of life or another, he’s just telling you how it is, and you can feel that weight of that hang over him all through Prima Donna, (on “Smile” it’s hard to tell if he’s asking you to or convincing himself). On “Might Be Wrong,” he almost hits rock bottom. There is an important skill here. I will refrain referring to Vince as Long Beach historian, but he is the reporter of his own predicament. The fact that such straight forward delivery has managed to commercially resonate is even more impressive. Perhaps is his lack of definitive statement and a conscious choice to remain an objective documentarian of the life around him that helps tracks keep such a somber tone.
Halfway through Atlanta’s second episode we encounter a scene involving police brutality. It being in the show isn’t a necessity in the plot. It does not try to make some sort of poignant point about race relations in America. It’s just there because that is the state of race relations in America. It’s the type of shit that happens every day. We just decide that it’s not as important as someone’s perceived and clearly misinterpreted views on the military. That is the best way to describe Vince’s work. He’s not trying to make a point, he’s telling you the way it is and it doesn’t limit itself to his lyrics only.
If you stumbled into one of his interviews, one involving a theory on why Ray J is the ultimate winner of the world (a real hot take here) you know that he simply happens to be a straight forward dude. So much so that GQ has resolved to have him give his opinion on positively everything in the world. That is ultimately where you may lose him. We’re not used to someone speaking their mind this openly. Sure, we get Kanye moments, but they come in the form of misanthropic rants begging for the stage lights to be on. Kanye’s speeches are meant only for the limelight and if no one is listening, then they’re not happening. With Vince, if no one is listening, then fuck ’em.
In culture that embraces the notion of the personality cult, Vince has the strongest one. However, it is not distilled to 2–3 key footnote features, it basically evens out to all Vince all the time, whether it’s through his lyrics or just him being himself. It’s almost jarring to see someone be so complete and unabashedly honest in both song and life. But if you get past that, you may find your new favourite artist.