Vince Staples Finds a Balance Between Vulnerability and Privacy

The Long Beach rapper’s highly anticipated second collaboration with Kenny Beats is a powerful lo-fi portrait of survival

Music Reviews Vince Staples
Vince Staples Finds a Balance Between Vulnerability and Privacy

On his last record, FM!, Vince Staples slipped out from underneath the mask of his manic, critical hit, Big Fish Theory, and stepped into the light of a pop-trap persona, unloading an ambitious, upbeat, 22-minute radio program presenting itself as an album. But transcending the glitz and sometimes-humorous West Coast macabre of Staples’ records has been his steadfast storytelling. A documentarian of his own love language, Staples populates his tracklists with tales of his upbringing and of the people who have come and gone since his childhood. He spent his first five records giving non-Californian fans a poignant layout of the Long Beach landscape he has called home for so long. But on his newest, self-titled project, his first release with Motown, Staples steps away from his place behind the camera and positions the focus fully on himself. The product is Vince Staples, a compact, 10-track summer spin—a quick, sophisticated string of punches. And with instrumental chef Kenny Beats at the production helm once again, the record is a beautiful arrangement of confessional conversation verging on slam poetry.

The crowning achievement of Staples is its cohesiveness. Each track bleeds into the next, and no moment feels out of place. The record is as carefully sequenced as it is performed. And where previous entries in his discography have included high-profile features, like Kendrick Lamar, Ty Dolla $ign and Jay Rock, Staples takes the reins and fills the gaps of Staples with his own voice. The constitution of “LAW OF AVERAGES” is textbook Staples, where he fuses dark humor with breathless commentary on neighborhood crime, seamlessly using snippets of pop culture to transition between verses. After nodding to homemade, air-sprayed memorial T-shirts, Staples glides into likening himself to Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, promising an unfair fight with an opponent that will land him in court. As is with each part of Staples’ evolution, Staples is yet another manifesto on balancing success with survival. “Yeah, I could die tonight, so today / I’m finna go get paid,” Staples spits on “SUNDOWN TOWN,” against the hiccups of distorted backing vocals and twisted sopranos cracking open the track’s breakdown.

Parts of Staples present themselves as if they are pouring from the living room’s surround sound-speakers at a house party, and the listener is hearing it from inside a locked bathroom; other moments are adroit curations of muted, monotone confidence and Staples letting the listener in. Unlike the bold, flex-filled rhapsodies released by his peers, Staples takes a different approach to that display of confidence on the record. During “THE SHINING,” Staples combats the million-dollar balderdash of jeweled-out Grammy nominees by gleaning a satirical aim at the storied Kubrick film, refusing to stay both motionless and deep in the throngs of clichéd products of success. “Fuck a mansion / Ask when I’m going to move to Malibu or Calabasas / I can never do it, I’m too active,” he raps on the track.

For seven years, it’s been everyone else against the world with Staples watching from afar, routinely worming his way into places where his observant lyricism earns its kudos. But at the root of it all is Staples’ admiration for the places and people he’s survived long enough to tell stories of. Staples replaces the radio ads that once populated FM! with quick recordings of loved ones dispersed as interludes on Staples. It’s in these moments Staples’ crisp, first-person storytelling takes a backseat and gives his family and friends a chance to tell the world how they see him. With a flashback to the first verse on FM!’s “Feels Like Summer,” Staples’ best friend Pac Slim hops on “LAKEWOOD MALL” to recount a night when Staples didn’t go to a party where gunfire eventually broke out. “The moral of this whole story is: got to think ahead. Separate yourself from the bullshit. Can’t get wrapped up in it,” Slim declares. And on “THE APPLE & THE TREE,” Staples’ mom admits to her previous bouts of anger only serving as barriers between her and her son.

Staples is a private person outside of his music, though he’s no stranger to the occasional viral tweet. But on Staples, the California rapper has taken the cultural phenomenon of his offline reclusivity and opened up its chest to the world, showing listeners that he is, in fact, as on top of the world as his counterparts—eating hot wings on YouTube, recording two podcasts, writing a graphic novel and bringing his new Netflix dramedy, The Vince Staples Show, to life. All of this, and Staples still has time to showcase his enigmatic progression with each subsequent album drop. Big Fish Theory was a collection of superb club bangers; FM! a love letter to Long Beach. And now, there is Vince Staples: a quick, calm persistence of Staples’ subtlest finesses. The foundation of his success starts in the basement of survival, while other rappers punctuate their ladder-climbing with long bars about seven-figure houses, island getaways and private jets. Both are justified angles, but the luxuries in Staples’ life are calculated by both the company he keeps and how long he can count his earnings alongside them from the comfort of his own home.

Matt Mitchell is a writer living in Columbus, Ohio. His writing can be found now, or soon, in Pitchfork, Bandcamp, Paste, LitHub and elsewhere. Find him on Twitter @matt_mitchell48.

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