Vince Staples on Representing Long Beach: 'Where We Come From, It's a Story'

Vince Staples performs at the 2015 Northside music festival, 6/14/15
Vince Staples performs at the 2015 Northside music festival, 6/14/15
Kathleen Caulderwood for the Village Voice

Vince Staples is a talent who came to Williamsburg’s Northside Festival on Sunday with a small but distinguished discography. The set was welcome, however expected: You had your college-aged, predominantly white audience. Then you had Staples, who strolled onto the stage in his black-and-purple outfit (black Vans, a “When Doves Cry”–referencing Prince shirt) after a quick sip of tea. You had the ominous set-opener, the bass-thumping “Fire.” You had the throwback cut that loses the attention of a few attendees: Shyne Coldchain Vol. 2’s excellent “Trunk Rattle,” in this case. You had your breakthrough track as the set-ender: here, the heart palpitation–inducing synths of “Blue Suede.”

It was a fine set turned in by the unlikely star of a lineup headlined by Run the Jewels, who were head-bobbing along to the performance. As to how that could've been the case, look at the “65 Hunnid” performance. The overpowering sound system cut for the vivid, sanguine second verse to tumble out of Staples’s lanky frame:

You alone, car full of niggas but you alone
It's time to show how much you love your homies
One nigga outside, two niggas up inside the store
One nigga gon' die, the other two can come along
Gloves with the disguise, bang the set before you blow
Don't stop till he drop
Don't shoot for the skies or shoot for his toes
I told you before
That nigga's gotta die for this shit to survive

What’s been impressive about Staples is how, at 21 years old, he’s able to deliver laconic yet powerful verses with such a crystal-clear worldview — it’s apparent in both his lyrics and his interviews. He’s good at rapping about violent scenarios (his lethal guest spot on Earl Sweatshirt’s “Hive” was a career-maker), but that’s just a fraction of his focus. Staples said last year’s Hell Can Wait was “just something we were trying to build from the ground up.” It’s a modest ambition for an EP that came with multiple fully formed ideas. “Hands Up” is an anti-law-enforcement anthem propelled by Staples’s scathing wit (“Them 9-11s been a tad bit frantic/If lights start flashin', please don't panic”). And “Limos,” Staples’s most pop-leaning cut, connects modern lust with the tale of Adam and Eve — without the potentially draining righteousness.

Hell Can Wait’s sharpness and versatility are part of why many are anticipating Summertime ’06, his forthcoming debut double album. It’s an audacious undertaking, but the twenty-track effort wasn’t deliberately made to be a spectacle. There was just a lot of material. “Record sales — I don’t care about none of that,” Staples says. “The songs, they belong to the people.” Staples hasn’t given much cause for doubt, either: “Señorita” thrives off sustained suspense, and the tracks he performed at the Northside Festival — “Surf,” “Lift Me Up,” and "Jump off the Roof” — feature production that ranges from Pharrell-esque eccentricities to bass-heavy tension.

Summertime ’06 comes as the latest exponent of an incendiary trend. After D’Angelo’s Black Messiah dropped, Kendrick Lamar and Chance the Rapper decided to take a (pardon the pun) chance with like-minded efforts of their own — to a decidedly mixed response. To Pimp a Butterfly's ambition barely hid a number of misfires, and the Social Experiment’s Surf was weightless in its jubilation. Summertime ’06 might receive more praise than both. But whatever the response, it will be an album with Staples’s hometown of Long Beach, California, firmly at its center, one that elucidates both the pain and sense of pride of life in the suburb.

The former is apparent in that album cover. The stark wave illustration bears a clear resemblance to Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures, an album notable for its bleak atmosphere. A Joy Division reference turns up again on a short, cryptic poem that captions the album cover on Staples’s Instagram: “Love Will Tear Us Apart.” The poem tells of a time — late in 2005 — when its narrator began to experience a series of mounting losses. Shards of that sort of loss show up on Staples's Instagram and Twitter bios: The former lists the names of homies incarcerated; the latter is a rundown of the deceased.

So Summertime ’06 is also a dedication. Staples tells the story of an African American coming up in Long Beach, and of the friends and family members who’ve been silenced — whether because no one is paying attention or they’re no longer here.

“Where we come from, it’s a story,” Staples says. “It’s disrespectful to not know where you come from, and it’s disrespectful to not give people a chance to explain. Because we don’t ask for explanations from those cigarette companies and those pharmaceutical companies.

“People have died. I’ve seen it. They haven’t seen it. And I could tell the difference.”

Seeing that sense of duty play out in front of the Northside audience made for an interesting scene. At one point, Staples playfully chided them for not joining him in a singalong of “Empire State of Mind" (“Shame on y'all motherfuckin’ selves…gentrifying and shit”). “Lift Me Up” was more to the point: “All these white folks chanting when I ask them where my niggas at.” The line could be a rallying cry elsewhere. Here, the crowd was slightly more hesitant to respond with raucousness.

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“It kind of feels minstrel sometimes when you go up there and spit something and you know people don’t relate to it: ‘Oh yeah! Rap!’ It’s just a personal conflict,” Staples says.

It’s an uncertainty that comes with the territory. However, many from that audience, and audiences nationwide, will be listening to an album with three certainties at the forefront. Staples is black. He’s from Long Beach. And after the season that traditionally symbolizes youth ends, the casualties rise.

Vince Staples's next NYC-area date is at the Best Buy Theater on June 30, the same day he'll celebrate the release of Summertime '06. For ticket info, click here.

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