The Long Beach native’s self-titled is vividly bleak, offering a gripping account of Staples’ trauma, paranoia and sharp hazard perception.
There’s no rapper out as nonchalant as Vince Staples. His deadpan personality is widely celebrated, but so is his music. From his 2014 EP Hell Can Wait to the polarising Big Fish Theory, Vince has consistently experimented and succeeded with whatever sound he’s toyed with. A large chunk of his output paints a picture of his hometown North Long Beach, California, ever-lyrical in his recounts of local gang banging. His debut album Summertime ’06 was entirely produced by No I.D., while 2018’s FM! was handled by Kenny Beats. Staples once again reunites with Kenny Beats on his self-titled offering.
Vince Staples serves 22 minutes of biographic snapshots, magnifying the rapper’s trauma and paranoia through the power of minimalism.
From Vince’s past music, we know he has lived through some horrors. Though this has never quite hit home like it does on Vince Staples. Self-titled projects usually indicates personal content. For Vince, his violent environment is what’s sculpted his identity. Eight two-minute songs and two interludes serve the mammoth task of transmitting his life story, expertly humanising the toll tragedy takes on mental health.
It is evidently tough for Vince to open up like this. At 22 minutes it may feel like the content is not enough, but in Vince’s case it is. Never does the album sound like it is hurrying. Kenny Beats’ production is equally tailored to this mission, trotting along slowly just like Vince’s laidback delivery. In contrast to the booming, futuristic sound of Big Fish Theory, the self-titled takes the entirely opposite approach, using minimalism to transfer a sense of solace.
Its muted colour works to its advantage. From start to finish, Vince Staples sounds grey. Lifeless even. It’s no wonder that death is a central theme of the album. Opening track “ARE YOU WITH THAT?” melodically masks morbid lyrics such as “If I die for the guys have my candlelight”, carrying this onto “SUNDOWN TOWN”, rapping “I can die tonight so today I’m finna go get paid”. There is a constant sense of paranoia where Vince is always looking over his shoulder, wary of his life being taken at any second just like his homies.
Lyrically, Vince Staples is candid but equally cryptic. Vince’s writing remains laconic, effectively acting as footnotes of his life than full-fledged recounts. Vince Staples is crammed with clever entendres and slick one-liners that are instantly memorable (“Hangin’ on them corners, same as hangin’ from a ceiling fan”), often served to detail the violent intent of his surroundings (“But “Lil Wayne Carter” what I call my .38 / Kiss your baby in the face if you play with where I stay”).
The two interludes add more meaning than what’s on face value. “THE APPLE & THE TREE” is narrated by Vince’s mother, who tells the story of lying on the witness stand to save Vince’s father from prison. The unofficial ‘code’ of street-life is lived and died by, and Vince shows that he (‘the apple’) gets his loyal traits from his mother (‘the tree’) (“N****s know I’ll never fold or bend”). “LAKEWOOD MALL” finds Vince’s incarcerated friend recounting the story of Vince rejecting an invitation to a party, which ultimately ended being shot up and the death of two people. Its moments like these that add justification to Vince’s paranoia.
Vince is never seeking answers. Matter fact, he is comfortably proud of where he is from. “TAKE ME HOME” is a bittersweet ode to Long Beach, but once again finds Vince wary of enemies, second-guessing any stranger he comes across. It is the price to pay of being attached to his hometown, and a burden that he will have to live with until his last breath.
What you learn in 22 minutes is that Vince is a natural sceptic. He has built-in hazard perception thanks to death constantly being on his mind. It is a bleak listen, but what Vince Staples shows is that you do not need colour to paint a picture.
8 / 10
Best tracks: “Sundown Town”, “Lil Fade”, “Taking Trips”, “The Shining”