Vince Staples’ existence within the milieu of West Coast rappers – born in California, raised in North Long Beach, California – is an act of rebellious dissatisfaction with the state of rap music and its current top crop of haughty, self-aggrandising purveyors. Staples has been open about his previous ties with LA gang culture, but confesses to never having never sipped a drop of alcohol, nor dabbling in illegal drugs. Now, he has since successfully extricated himself from the negative gang links, and is actively involved in speaking with the youth of South California on the dangers of succumbing to the gang lifestyle. This all runs counter to the rapper attitude that currently pervades the music landscape. Although rap has become less about glorifying oneself in the violent excesses that come with being a gangbanger, it still inflicts upon itself an odious scent of rap artist self-hype that seems to inform a lot of the lyrics. For example, Drake tells us in ‘Light Up’:
I’ve been up for 4 days
Getting money both ways
Dirty and clean, I could use a glass of cold Spades
Rolexes, chauffeurs and low fades
While Migos, humble as ever, in ‘Spray the Champagne’ want to remind everyone they be:
“Sprayin’ the Champagne on the sofa fuckin’ up the couch with Louboutin loafers
25 hundred nigga I put in the sole
Young nigga we got the crown and my neck looks just golden”
Both examples show a vapid preoccupation with vaunting their wealth while also constructing a sickly and outdated machismo image, rather than using their talent for more profound, and less superficial, self-expression. Rap artists are a fascinating cohort within music, not just in terms of their life experience, but their route into the industry is often more prolonged and seemingly impenetrable even by normal industry standards. Therefore, you would think that when the opportunity comes, they would have subject matter and concerns that are more visceral, and deeply-rooted to their own experiences, to jot down on scraps of paper and the backs of envelopes, rather than the size of their back balance (and, unconsciously, their cocks) and how much respect should be bestowed on them from their fans and peers. This idea around rap artists and perception is something Staples has, more empathetically, engaged with, stating in an interview with the New York Times:
‘If a rapper could drive a Toyota without getting clowned, then they would do it. It’s more about the perception: You have to be larger than life, you can’t be a regular person. They’re doing what they have to do to get heard and appreciated and not made a mockery of.’
Vince Staples, and a select few of his contemporaries, has endeavoured to fill the ‘serious rapper’ void in urban music. On his debut album, Summertime ’06, released in June 2015, 2 days before his 22nd birthday, Pitchfork detailed how Staples expresses ‘complex ideas’ in a ‘conversational’ rapping style, punctuated by ‘plain, hard sentences’. The record is a preservation of the old-school West Coast gangsta rap and listens like 20 vignettes on life in North Long Beach: exploring such varied themes as racial profiling (‘Lift Me Up‘), sex (‘Lemme Know’), teenage angst-driven nihilism (‘Jump Off The Roof‘), while, in the track ‘Surf’, Staples pierces our gaze, with a relentless calm, as he soberly revisits the daily carnage that torments those neighbourhoods afflicted with the threatening concoction of guns, drug abuse and poverty. In brutal fashion, and in just one verse, Staples laments:
“More black kids killed from a pill than the FEDs in the projects
In the planned parenthood playin’ God with ya mom’s check, you ain’t even been to prom yet
Sixteen, heard you wanna be a star girl
What he charge for the dream? Getcha ball girl
What’s the price for a life in this dark world?
Couple hundred where I come from, how you sleep when the sun down?
I ain’t really tryna judge, they be lookin’ for somebody you can love
He was lookin’ for somebody he could fuck
Took ya body, wouldn’t bother with you none
Spoiled rotten in the bottom of the slums
Caught up in the fun”.
You don’t get such jarring assessment of inner-city living in Southern California, from the likes of Migos and L’il Wayne. This bleak narrative comes from a lost hope, for many black Americans, in what an Obama presidency had promised would be positive change for poor, black neighbourhoods.
Not content with simply reframing the what the purpose and focal point of rap lyricism should be – if it even still existed before he exploded onto the scene, Staples is also plugging the huge chasm when it comes melodic composition. With Particular attention on his second album, Big Fish Theory, (released in 2017), Vince eschews the monotonous templates of beats and melodies that plenty of rap artists re-use over and over, and instead demonstrates an innovative flair and unique vision when experimenting with this much-neglected aspect of the wider mechanism of rap music recording. Historically, lyrics have always been of prime importance within rap, and they should be, but that should not subjugate the melody so much so that the words are laid over the same lazy, hackneyed beat sequences. Staples recognised this early in his career, understanding that a track with a carefully cultivated sound can often augment the musical whole and deliver an urgency and intensity of poetic messaging to the listener.
This sophistication in the marriage of sound and rap language has been exemplified in Big Fish Theory, which incorporates avant-garde, dance and electronic influences that sit alongside Staples’ philosopher/provocateur rap lyricism. (Listen to ‘Love Can Be…’ or ‘BagBak‘). On this record, Staples stairs into the fishbowl of the rap ecosystem, exploring, as Staples himself puts it: “how rappers are perceived and perceive themselves”, which harks back to my opening musings at the beginning of this article. Staples manages to unburden himself on this record in quickfire proclamation tracks lasting, on average, only 3 minutes. The secret is tempo, and Staples mutates from his previous tranquillity on prior records, to an artist exuding a manic energy. It’s a very bold and unorthodox rap album. It’s Vince Staples’ boldness and unconventional style that the rap world needs to embrace, and encourage, in order realise its full potential and purpose, and escape the insipid perception it communicates to a global music audience.
— Daniel Adshead —