Vince Staples’ Song Remains the Same in Limbo Beach
The rapper sits down to discuss his latest graphic novel as a companion to RAMONA PARK BROKE MY HEARTPhoto by Zamar Velez Music Features Vince Staples
As a child, I lived a block away from one of the most notorious housing projects in the city. At all hours of the day, police officers patrolled the parking lot, watching as the people passed in and out of the blood-red apartment doors. It was its own insular world, separated by a series of broken fences. Despite gang activity, murder and drugs, life went on. Children outgrew the rusty bikes on their front steps, flowers bloomed and families came and went. There was beauty in the community’s resilience in spite of being abandoned by the city. How do you explain violence to a child? How do you explain systemic inequality to a child who just sees another child on the other side of the rusty fence?
Vince Staples has grappled with those questions for years. It started with his 2014 “official” debut EP Hell Can Wait, armed with a minimalist production that’s as tense as tiptoeing in a minefield. Staples eventually broke into a full sprint, slowly peeling back each layer to reveal another piece of his upbringing. As his music transformed from a means of survival into a reliable and comfortable career in rap, Staples began to zoom out of his life. Personal anecdotes turned into a retroactive analysis, as evident in the title of his 2017 album Big Fish Theory, which references the theory that fish only grow as big as the tank they’re kept in.
Staples is ready for a new chapter, one that he’s been carefully moving toward for the past decade. He’s 28 now, inching farther and farther away from his past with each breath, each album, each tour. In press materials for his 2021 single “LAW OF AVERAGES,” he says, “I feel like I’ve been trying to tell the same story.” With that, he released his self-titled album. It was calculated, concise and therapeutic. Staples’ hardened exterior fell away to reveal a portrait of a man riddled with guilt and paranoia, struggling with the loyalty he’s had toward his home. On “TAKE ME HOME,” he lackadaisically raps, “Keep coming back to this place ‘cause they trapped us.” It takes a trained ear to focus on his mumbled ad-lib in the background of this bar where he says “the hood.”
It came as a surprise that less than a year after such a breathtaking release, Staples announced RAMONA PARK BROKE MY HEART. Unlike his other work, there was an underlying finality to the album. Like an amends list, Staples walks through the streets that made him and reflects on them with deep, indescribable love. It’s a love not tinged with guilt, but rather with an appreciation that these fragments pieced together one of the most gifted rappers of this generation. It’s a vivid and fascinating love letter to a place not normally given that consideration—documentation is a privilege not offered to all. So is access and safety. Staples placed Ramona Park into the hip-hop canon, and it’s applicable to countless other places.
Staples chose to approach his story in a more unique, accessible way in a collaboration with Z2 Comics. Limbo Beach is a stunning visual addition to Staples’ catalog, telling the story of a wayward teenager finding himself lost on an island theme park ruled by adolescents with special abilities. At face value, it’s your standard adventure story, anchored by camaraderie and self-discovery. It’s also a metaphor for not just Staples’ childhood, but also the experiences of countless other children thrust into a new world that seems to exist in the margins, complete with its own politics, rules and values.
In our conversation, Staples proves that this foray into comics is appropriate. He is sharp, quick-witted and abrupt. You can hear each sentence open several other doors in his mind, and he always picks the one with the prize on the other side. He wastes no time, anchored by the lifetimes’ worth of experiences and wisdom within him. It’s these glimpses of his magnetic personality and savvy analyses that make his music such a rewarding listen. While Staples doesn’t mind if people don’t engage with his art through a sympathetic and curious lens, it certainly helps.
Read our full conversation with Vince Staples about RAMONA PARK BROKE MY HEART and Limbo Beach below.
Paste: Obviously a comic requires a different approach than what you’re used to with your albums. What was this experience like?
Vince Staples: It was very—I want to make sure I’m using the right word—it was a very seamless process. I don’t want to say easy, because I don’t want it to seem like it wasn’t, you know, a lot of hard work. Z2 approached us about doing something in their space, which you know, was already a privilege, but they do a lot of stuff based on music, and I just asked if we could do something based on an original idea. The guys surrounded us around a lot of guys a couple being Buster Moody and Bryan Edward Hill who were the main writers with me. It was just a very, very informative process working with people who’ve been doing it for so long, were so professional, and know so much about the space. It was really, really fun. We were able to kind of bring about a story that I think is unique, and, you know, an experience for a lot of people.
Paste: How much input did you have working with all these people, from the art to the dialogue?
Staples: Um, well, just brainstorming! I had an idea, or just like a concept of a question I haven’t asked myself for a long time. It’s kind of based on this question of youth and what comes with it. You know, life is life, no matter how old you are. Growing up, a lot of people that we know or saw didn’t have enough time in their youth to learn from their mistakes and grow. And it’s like, what happens to those people? You know, what happens if they’re no longer with us before they were able to have a turning point in their life?
That gave us this concept of limbo, and we just built upon that and tried to build an environment in which we can kind of divulge in that in a fun, unique way that can also be helpful to people, if they need it. So I go and sit in with the guys and find the perfect team of writers, find the perfect animator, and have a couple conversations. It was really seamless. And we built out what we have now, which is, you know, I think a story just as much as it is everything else. The illustration is beautiful, the way it’s put together is great. Everybody did a really great job.
Paste: I love how the story itself centers around this ambiguous group of teenagers where if you can’t find yourself in the main character, you can relate to one of the many others. Your music itself, especially RAMONA PARK BROKE MY HEART, focuses on your youth a lot too. What is it like to continue to revisit that part of your life?
Staples: I think it’s important past me, do you know what I mean? I’m good. Now I’m older, I’m 28, I’ve been able to, you know, kind of escape all that. Now I can only think about what would I have liked to see as far as representation, contrasting opinions and information and things of that nature. So now, when I create things, I think about what’s missing, what was missing for me, and what I think might be missing for other people and then growing from that. And I think, if we can put ourselves in the equation and also be selfless, that’s when you’re able to create great things. I just tried to make sure that I’m keeping youth in mind, but also keeping growth in mind. I know a lot more than I did when I was young.
Paste: What was that representation like for you growing up if you had any at all?
Staples: Life! I paid attention and always tried to be understanding of the people and the stuff around me. I didn’t really take much personal so I just know, having that kind of point of view helped me a lot. I was able to just take things for what they are, which kind of gives me my “why not?” attitude when it comes to creating music and things of that nature. It’s nothing that I’m super opposed to, or nothing that I’m really trying to get across. I’m just living, as you know, we all are. That has been something that stuck with me.
Paste: Going off of that, how does it feel knowing that others are looking at you as that same source of representation? Is there pressure?
Staples: No, it’s not really a pressure. It’s privilege we’re able to do these things. A lot of people don’t have these opportunities and stuff like that. I’m not anti at all. I’m more so just grateful that I’m able to do these unique things because I didn’t really have much going when I was younger. I’m just grateful no matter what, it’s really never a stressful situation, because everything is kind of up from here.
Paste: I’ve been listening to you for over a decade now and have seen your approach to your artistry change. There is a central biographical theme throughout your work that you’ve been reevaluating. How do you keep it fresh?
Staples: I feel like when we think about music, music is kind of the least artistic art form, and we call it “art.” I don’t really call it that. But you know, Martin Scorsese makes mafia movies. You have people that make thrillers, specifically, you know, John Carpenter. That’s his thing. You have a comedy guy, you know, a lot of character acting and things of that nature. Picasso has his art style, Basquiat has his art style, Jeff Koons has his art style. In music, I think we overvalue growth and change. I think we naturally grow as humans and a lot of the time, that could be enough. It’s a refreshing take on your perspective and how you view the world because people enjoy you for your point of view. So I don’t even really think about that too much. I just try to make sure that I’m keeping my natural growth, like as a human being, I’m keeping that in mind.
That helps me because the same point of view that I’ll take to music, I’ll bring on something like this with my ideas of youth and repercussions, having grace with people and other things of that nature. Those kinds of thoughts have the same intention, but me being 28, I’m thinking about what else life has to offer. That brings these kinds of opportunities that I probably wouldn’t have done when I was younger, because I wasn’t thinking in that same mind state. It allows me to expound on my ideas further. I think the growth is in the facilitation of the idea itself, like how do you do it? Where do you do it? It’s not necessarily trying to reinvent it, and that kind of like, alleviates a lot of the pressure.
Paste: Both within your music and Limbo Beach, you definitely see that. You know, looking back on your life and seeing what was actually very painful and what was a learning experience. It’s a special thing.
Staples: Wow, thank you. I appreciate that. I always appreciate hearing people’s takes on what’s being created and things of that nature. So thank you.
Paste: One thing not discussed nearly enough in reference to hip-hop is this voyeuristic way in which it can be consumed. Pain and trauma is turned into a spectacle. You have been critical of this approach in the past. Between RAMONA PARK and Limbo Beach, how do you feel about people consuming such intimate work like that?
Staples: I know what you mean. I look at it like this, right. People have whatever tastes they have, but at the end of the day, man, we just have to realize that we put this into the world for it to be digested. We can’t really tell somebody how to feel. I think you have to get a lot of that out of your system when you first start making music. It’s up for interpretation. When I was younger, I would have digested something not in the way that the creator intended, but that gave me a perspective that allows me to do what I’m doing now. As long as people are appreciative of your contributions, they’re not hurting anyone or demeaning to artists, you kind of just kind of let that go. But, I do appreciate those people who do consider intention with it, because that is very, very, very rare. It’s not a necessity for me anymore, because I kind of understand the bigger picture. I’m pretty sure I didn’t understand a lot of things that I liked when I was a kid[,] and then I grow up and have my point of view which was, you know, indirectly inspired by this work that I saw when I was younger. I think as artists, you shouldn’t rob someone of that growth and development.
Paste: Precisely, and it’s an unconscious thing you have to actively unlearn as someone in such a vulnerable position to realize you can only hold onto something for so long before you just let it go and see where life takes it.
Staples: Yeah. My thing is, I just answer the question and then people are like, “Oh, I’m sorry, I don’t want to misinterpret it.” I was never upset about anything of that nature. When I release something, it’s over with. I don’t think about it after that, because what I get from it is the creation of it. Once you put something up for sale, that’s it. You don’t buy a pair of shoes and then Vans is like “I wonder if they like it?” I just feel like it’s important to let people know that it’s okay to interpret things how you take them, as long as you have an appreciation and respect for the art. Everything else is fine with me personally.
Paste: Going back to the medium of a comic, it is fitting for you. You’ve already explored formats outside of an album format like The Vince Staples Show, commercials, all that. Your imagery lends itself well to a more cartoonish style, and clearly, you love films. Do you have any non-musical influences that stick with you?
Staples: I think everything that you digest affects you subconsciously, whether known or not. So like, whenever it comes to influence, you kind of have to say everything because I could have saw five to 10 seconds of something when flipping through a channel and it permeates into my brain and now I see things a different way. I still digest like, if you’re talking from a film standpoint, and like animation, things like that. . .I watch Twilight Zone a lot. And I don’t know why but I do. Music was never the thing that I digested. I’m not a big music listener to be honest. I watch a lot of like, Back to the Future and the same seven moves. I’m not really a “digesting” person to be honest. I don’t know why. I watch new things. I’m gonna watch new things when they come up, but as far as like, old stuff, I don’t.
Paste: Did you get to see the new Twilight Zone?
Staples: No, I didn’t see it at all. It was only one of those streaming services I wasn’t about to make an account for. I really wanted to see it, and then I forgot where it was at. It’s funny you say that because recently I tried to watch it but I really didn’t know where the fuck it was.
Paste: I feel you can learn a lot about someone from their favorite episode of the Twilight Zone. My favorite was “Time Enough At Last.”
Staples: Where he breaks his glasses? That’s a good one. To be honest, I’ve really seen every episode of Twilight Zone a million times. I liked the one with the dude who’s doing a government experiment when he was in a tank. I also like the one with the dude who turned invisible and he’s like, in his house with his wife or whatever. I saw so many of those fucking episodes. I can’t remember any of them. But, I literally used to watch it every day. I’ll watch the Twilight Zone and The Simpsons every day. And Back to the Future. I’ve also watched Toy Story once every four years.
Paste: First Toy Story only?
Staples: I’m too old for the new ones.
Paste: Going back to your media consumption habits, is there a reason you don’t like revisiting things? Does it not have the same effect on you a second time?
Staples: Even my manager says I don’t forget anything and I have a great memory, which I don’t agree with. I don’t revisit things because I get what I get from it. I’ve just never been entertained by things[,] to be honest. Since I was a kid, I don’t get happy about shit as weird[,] as that might sound. I can watch or listen to something once and I get it. Then I never have to see it again. Whenever people ask what’s your favorite song or artist, I really think hard about it and draw a blank because I just naturally don’t come up with answers.
Paste: A common thread amongst many of the artists I enjoy seems to be this avoidance of outside media. I get it, because listening to something enough times might inevitably influence whatever you’re working on.
Staples: I definitely agree. You become a person who does things like this based on your unique perspective, so you can’t have too many outside influences. In music, you have the art sector and the entertainment sector. I don’t think I’m that entertaining, so I fall into the first one. It’s kind of weird.
Paste: Well, regardless of how you feel about yourself, other people definitely find you entertaining. You’ve become part musician, part comedian. Did you intend for that to happen? Is it uncomfortable?
Staples: I mean, it was weird when I was younger but now I get it. Back then it felt weird because I felt like music was my only opportunity to take care of myself, but now it’s not that anymore. It doesn’t bother me that much. I enjoy doing things like this! You have to be willing to grow.
Paste: You’ve gone from music as a means of survival to something more as you’ve grown more successful, and I think RAMONA PARK is a touching love letter and a bit of a farewell to that part of you. Likewise with Limbo Beach. What does this mean to you to shine a light on something not normally given this grace?
Staples: You know, I feel like as I get older, a lot of my work is an anthology of the neighborhood and surroundings in which I grew up, but it’s not just specifically that. That’s my framework of how I create art. Right? At this point, this is another part of the anthology that kind of feels like the end of it. I have a lot more understanding and closure than I did when I was younger. It’s hard to understand something while you’re still in it. I’m really far removed from my childhood and my youth and the things I used to care about. And it’s a good thing, because a lot of the people around me are as well, but that comes with time, right? My mom used to say all the time, “Sometimes you literally live long enough to learn a lesson.” That’s kind of where I am right now.
I think that the understanding of the environment and my situation is greater than it’s ever been, which allows me to have the state of mind to be able to complete this anthology and Limbo Beach. It’s your perspective, like Scorsese! Now, how you go from one to the other is a very interesting thing though. The scenery never really changes when you think about creation. Limbo Beach is obviously a parallel to my environment as a kid, but you know, is Taxi Driver? Is it Goodfellas? These are all different things. But you’re able to take your environment and see it from different points of view based on your travels. Me being able to see more, me being able to do more, allows me to have a different point of view than I had before. That’s what gives me such a good setting and scenery.
You can purchase Limbo Beach here.
Jade Gomez is Paste’s assistant music editor, dog mom, Southern rap aficionado and compound sentence enthusiast. She has no impulse control and will buy vinyl that she’s too afraid to play or stickers she will never stick. You can follow her on Twitter.