Vince Staples came from nowhere; or, as is often the case with those to whom that by-line is applied, he seemed to come from nowhere. But as was the case with Californian fellow Kendrick Lamar, he’s just finally getting his due attention. Vince is an impressive voice for the newest breed of hip-hop artists, but only seems to have blown up on Summertime ’06 – which is bizarre considering its an LP with an indomitable heart of darkness, that only really inspires one to turn away.
Vince Staples’ matter-of-factness is no secret, and it’s not like rappers have ever kept quiet about ‘not giving a fuck.’ But listening to this record it’s clear that unlike some, when Vince says he doesn’t care about radio play he really means it. In fact it seems nothing comes in the way of earnestness; there’s been no moment in hip-hop as potentially alienating to listeners since Lil Wayne failed to understand that most of his fans aren’t exactly millionaires on ‘Rich As Fuck’ as when Vince spits “all these white folks chanting/I asked ’em where my niggas at?” on ‘Lift Me Up.’ But I’d rather know I’m not necessarily the first person he’s speaking to than sacrifice having a rapper as stone-faced and honest as this. He’s keen to make it known that he’s the real thing; and it works, because when he spits bars like “this shit ain’t Gryffindor, we really killin’, kickin’ doors”; there’s no doubt.
There’s a peculiar kind of stasis portrayed on record too; there’s a depth to Staples’ storytelling; saying on ‘Lift Me Up’ that “I need to fight the power but I need that new Ferrari”, but the difference with Vince is that this paradox is noted, yet explored no further – while Kendrick searches for answers, the facts are laid out here, but the paradox just… exists. It’s a sorry state of affairs and it’s not changing soon; the album is about coming to terms with that, and what’s left behind; rather than solving it. The issue with this approach perhaps is one of repetition; sometimes it seems like Vince is simply trying to find new words to describe the city in which he lives rather than a fresh angle; meaning solid songs like ‘Street Punks’ and ‘Hang n’ Bang’ suffers from re-tread ground. That being said; a lesser rapper couldn’t sell such an approach at all. If Gucci Mane spit these bars it would be nothing more than surface level vapidity; but Vince says it with such goddam conviction his words are monumental; set in stone. It’s a dog eat dog world, and at times it’s like everything; drunks, sex, god – are just a means of dealing with the reality. On ‘Jump Off The Roof’ Vince talks of suicide and spits “I made up God ‘cus I need him.” No line better encapsulates the records nonchalance in the face of desolation.
The fantastic production on the record reflects the purview of the lyrics perfectly. Clams Casino and Kanye mentor No I.D. have the beats clunk and clatter their way through the two sides of material here; with pots and pans and a distinct Latin flavour often dominating the beats: the driving rhythms in perfect syncopation and tension with Vince’s abrasive, rattling flow. When deployed with vigour of tracks like ‘Norf Norf’, ‘Señorita’ and ‘Get Paid’ the results are some of the most infectious bangers of the year; music with a fire and hunger in its underbelly. It’s a shame that there’s nothing here that quite manages to recapture the furnace of ‘Blue Suede’ or ‘69 Hunnid’ off of Staples’ phenomenal 2014 EP Hell Can Wait though. The music can also get derailed by a slight reliance on the trendier sounds in hip-hop today; mostly brought by the features; who are talented singers, but appear here only to do the sort of dishwater moan-rapping that so spoilt Drake’s last mixtape. Jhene Aiko’s appearance here is mostly dull, as is Kilo Kish’s on ‘Surf’. Luckily these only provide bridges on otherwise entertaining tracks, but on ‘Might Be Wrong’ where the whole song consists of some semi-autotuned wailing ala PARTYNEXTDOOR and the whole LP grinds to halt.
That’s not to say the production isn’t versatile however. Perhaps the most surprising moments on the album are that there are two rather beauteous spots here; with a lot more poeticism than most rap albums would allow for. Perhaps they’re all the brighter for the darkness that surrounds them, but when the warm fuzz of Clam Casino’s ‘Summertime’ fades in it somehow actually sounds like a hazy summer afternoon, and sets the scene perfectly for the moment of reflection that follows. “Look at the sun, all we need to see to know our freedom” he spits, “my teachers told me we was slaves/my mama told me we was kings/I don’t know who to listen to/I guess we’re somewhere in between.” It’s a poignant moment, and reminds that Vince is an insightful kid sharpened, not neutered, by brutality in his life. No I.D provides the next such spot on the same place on the second side of the record; a Kanye-like string section wouldn’t be appropriate here, but a more hopeful ambience is created instead by simply slowing the sound down; a synth line in the backdrop like soft breathing. “I gotta be, I gotta be the one/To make it up to heaven, despite the things I’ve done.” It’s a wistful break, which gives way to a spoken word section – and reminds that Vince does want a more rewarding future than past, and that despite the record mostly just ruminating on the place he finds himself, this very record is his way of getting there.
Staples’ conviction results in an incredibly vivid depiction of Long Beach; perhaps even more so, dare I say it, than Good Kid MAAD City did. The lines early on ‘3230’ “another day in sunny California/the FEDs takin’ pictures and they tappin’ Motorolas/everybody snitchin’, gotta live with paranoia” are near-cinematic, and Vince has a DH Lawrence-level awareness of the geography of his city. 3230 even turns out to be the address on Poppy Street that the rapper called home. The difference here is that this record deals only in these terms; not searching for progress or even change especially, just Darwinian adaptation. Summertime ’06 is, as the title would suggest, a photograph of a particular moment in Long Beach, California – and it’s not a pretty picture.
Liam Inscoe – Jones
Liam is currently listening to ‘Ain’t Got No, I Got Life’ by Nina Simone
Co-Editor of the Music Section at University of Nottingham’s IMPACT Magazine.