Soundset 2015 Photography by Joe Runge
To describe Vince Staples is to fumble with contradictions. It’s true that the 22-year-old’s gritty storytelling — about his native Long Beach, California’s young gang members, their parents and grandparents, and the police who have antagonized them for generations — differentiates him from less literary rappers like Future and Fetty Wap. But those are artists he listens to.
Staples, a Naughty Nasty Gangster Crip who’s still considered “conscious” by the music media, routinely tiptoes his way around hip-hop’s classism. For example, this spring, a year after collaborating with Chicago elder statesman Common for the Nobody’s Smiling track “Kingdom”, Staples released “Señorita”, a kinetic banger that samples Future’s “Covered N Money”.
Sitting down with Staples at Minnesota hip-hop festival Soundset in May, I ask him about rappers who have found lasting success without being conventionally “lyrical.” Specifically, I ask him about Chief Keef.
“A kid where Chief Keef comes from doesn’t understand anything any ‘real MC’ is saying,” Staples says. “Niggas don’t want to hear you talk about the stars and the moon and shit when they gotta try to stay alive at night. If you perform your ‘true MC’ shit in front of a Chief Keef crowd, you’re getting booed off the fuckin’ stage and vice versa.”
What happens when someone criticizes a rapper because of their perceived lack of lyrical ability? “You’re telling somebody their story doesn’t matter,” Staples says. “That’s foul.”
This might sound familiar if you’ve heard Summertime ’06, Staples’ two-disc debut. Here’s how he puts it in a spoken interlude on “Like It Is”, describing the lack of respect that white America has for black people who come from circumstances similar to his own: “You looking at a person telling them that their story don’t matter is really no better than me walkin’ down the street tryna shoot at somebody.” It’s unsurprising that there’s overlap between Summertime and Staples’ interviews; he’s always pondered a tight grouping of themes in his music and in conversation.
Throughout Summertime, Staples sorts through the grim realities he saw during his formative years in North Long Beach, including linty pockets, little guys with big guns, and tapped Motorola cell phones. “I’m just a nigga until I fill my pockets/ And then I’m Mr. Nigga,” Staples raps in the album’s first lines. It says a lot about the coming hour’s themes of desperation and oppression. There’s something post-good kid, m.A.A.d city about Summertime’s scope, but where Kendrick Lamar’s 2012 breakthrough had its share of festival-ready songs, Summertime burns slower and subtler with its eerie beats (provided by guys like No I.D., DJ Dahi, and Clams Casino). From a sales perspective, the album did low numbers its first week out, but don’t rule out the possibility of Staples garnering a huge following. He was recently named a XXL Freshman, and there are more eyes on him now than ever before.
Though he says he’s still learning things as an artist, it’s been a while since Staples was truly a freshman. After first making a name for himself with his Odd Future collaborations (like Earl Sweatshirt’s “epaR”), he went on to release a mixtape a year from 2011 to 2014. His first Def Jam release, an EP called Hell Can Wait, came out last October, which makes Summertime his sixth project overall.
“I feel like it’s gotten better each time,” Staples says of his evolution from project to project, a timeline that begins with his 2011 tape Shyne Coldchain Vol. 1. “Everything is reflective of a point in time or a space I was in during my life. As I’ve grown up and as I’ve noticed other things in life, I feel like I’ve definitely gotten better.”
Common and Earl Sweatshirt have praised Staples’ ability to work fast in the studio. Did he feel pressure to take his time with Summertime, his debut album? With the results to believe that his swift writing process worked in the past, Staples stuck to certain elements of his usual approach, but he also started paying closer attention to detail.
“You know the energy that’s supposed to be distributed on a song once you hear it,” he says of listening to and rapping over beats for potential inclusion on Summertime. “The way that you react to it, the way other people react to it, is what you should go with. You have to recognize that energy and take your time to really perfect it. I haven’t been [making music] for a long time. I feel like I don’t know how to make music yet.”
Staples doesn’t necessarily think his dark themes or limited knowledge of music theory are at odds with today’s music industry. When the credits for Earl Sweatshirt’s Doris surfaced in 2013, it emerged that Staples had signed with Def Jam. During his time with the iconic label, he’s been quick to deflect notions that Def Jam would steer him in a direction he doesn’t want to go.
“Def Jam signed Vince Staples, so they don’t expect anything but Vince Staples music,” he says. Fans see Staples as a voice-of-a-generation type, and for Def Jam, he’ll tell you, that’s enough. The most commercial-sounding song on Summertime is “Señorita”, which, with its harrowing verses and gear-shifting outro from Snoh Aalegra, ends up being too aggressive to slide easily into radio rotation.
It’s unlikely that anything, shady record label practices or otherwise, could prevent Staples from getting his points across. Few rappers are so determined to make their music inseparable from their reality, and Summertime is dotted with specific locations in Long Beach, including Ramona Park and the house where Staples lived for the final years of his teens.
While Summertime tells much of Staples’ story, music isn’t the only art form he’s interested in. He’s also into film, an affinity he traces back to his days of watching “corny shit like fuckin’ Beethoven and Small Soldiers” as a kid. Fast-forward to today, and he has a role in Rick Famuyiwa’s Dope. To hear Staples tell it, though, his top priority is for Summertime to be received well — not in terms of sales, but in terms of its impact on listeners who find enlightenment in the way it reflects societal issues.
At Soundset before our interview, I watch Staples perform a set that includes the Hell Can Wait standout “Hands Up”, a song that addresses America’s problem of police brutality. The day before, Michael Brelo, the Cleveland patrolman tried for killing two unarmed black people in a barrage of bullets after a high-speed car chase in 2012, was acquitted of all charges related to the incident. I ask Staples about “Hands Up” taking on new life whenever a race-related incident or controversial development makes headlines.
“If you really look at the music that we all care about forever, whether Michael Jackson, The Beatles, or Kanye West, those songs are always going to be related to a normal day-to-day person’s life,” Staples says. “That’s who we do it for at the end of the day. Our job is to make their life easier, whether it’s for five minutes on a song, 30 minutes on a project, a music video, [or] an interview. We’re bringing relief to the stressful situation that they go through; we’re commentary on their life. I didn’t experience that much in the era of music which I grew up in, and I can see it changing things.”
That kind of optimism feels rare coming from Staples, whose music can be unremittingly bleak. The key to his art, though, is that he calls attention to darkness without giving it more power than it already has. To expand on a quote from the album: He tells it like it is, then how it could be, knowing the gap can be bridged.
“I care about where I came from,” Staples says. “At the end of the day, it’s probably a million people in Long Beach, so I don’t care about anything else. If I’m making a good representation of where I come from, of my history, and people can relate to that or learn from it, I’ll be just fine.”
Click through to the next page for more photos from Soundset 2015, including shots of J. Cole, Ice Cube, Ludacris, and more.