Vince Staples is not bringing back gangster rap.
The 23-year-old might have struggled for survival as a teenager in North Long Beach, and sure, wisps of his street-life past come up in a few songs on his acclaimed 2015 full-length Def Jam debut, Summertime '06. But a few trunk-rattling beats and razor-sharp verses about the realities of life without economic options do not a gangster-rap resurgence make.
"Motherfuckers say Summertime '06 was gangster rap, but that's just whatever they say when they've never been [south of] the 10 freeway," Staples notes, reclining on a leather couch at Hollywood's EastWest Studios, where he recently finished recording his next album, Big Fish Theory, dropping June 23. "[Summertime] is not really that banged out to me, just to be real. Every nigger has lived that in the eyes of the people who like to call us 'niggers' when their door's closed, so I don't really care about that type of shit."
Staples, dressed casually in a black hoodie and khaki-colored joggers and sipping on a cucumber-ginger limeade, spends the next few hours emphasizing how little he cares about what people think of his music in general, or his place in L.A.'s current hip-hop renaissance. He is not being coy about this indifference, either. He seems genuinely uninterested in how his music affects listeners or how it's perceived by anyone once it leaves his hands.
"I don't think too much about it. You walk to the canvas and you paint," he says with an unwavering stare. "Art is a selfish thing."
Along with Kendrick Lamar, Staples emerged over the last seven years as a different kind of rapper. Since he started dropping flows as a fringe member of the Odd Future crew at age 15 (stealing the show with his cameo on Earl Sweatshirt's "Hive"), Staples has collaborated with everyone from Common to Ghostface Killah to, most recently, Gorillaz. His early mixtapes, Shyne Coldchain Vol. 1, Shyne Coldchain II, Winter in Prague and Stolen Youth, showed a raw, promising talent, one almost stifled by the limits of his surroundings.
His manager, Corey Smyth, says Staples started to push past those limitations when money started coming in.
“If you can wake up every day and know that rent is paid, and you don’t have to worry about where your next meal is coming from, and you know that if someone you love and care about asked you for something, you can give it to them, it changes perspective,” Smyth says. “Those are three things I know for sure he had to deal with that he doesn’t have to deal with now.”
It wasn't until 2014's Hell Can Wait EP, his first release on Def Jam, that Staples started to become the rapper recognizable today. On it, the 21-year-old positioned himself almost as an urban ethnographer, giving deadpan descriptions of his experiences and observations, often dropping facts and knowledge with a wryness that could easily go over the head of anyone outside his inner circle.
Summertime '06, released more than a year later, was a groundbreaking double disc of creaky No I.D. and DJ Dahi beats that introduced the world to Long Beach's Ramona Park. It birthed anthems such as "Lift Me Up" and "Norf Norf," the latter an ode to the 10 square blocks that were most of his world until his family got evicted in 2014. Last summer's Prima Donna EP was another departure for Staples, eschewing North Long Beach trauma for issues more pressing to an emerging hip-hop star (fame, fortune, fans) set to sub-bassy beats from British electronic producer James Blake.
Critics have tried to extrapolate all kinds of meaning from every line of Staples' oeuvre — that there's no optimism in his reality checks, that he's lonely now that he's successful, that he's beefing with every rapper out there, that he's changed since he moved to L.A. Ask him what his songs are really about, though, and he swears it's not that deep.
"I was talking to [a] homie — he's known me for 17 years. He said, 'Niggas always thinking you're making some gangbanging shit, but your whole album was about girls,'" Staples says with a smirk of Summertime '06. "He's right, too. That whole fucking CD is about girls."
Instead of bringing back gangster rap, Staples would prefer these days to be seen as a rapper embarking on his own journey as an artist, one that might result in familiar-sounding music but actually combines the fuck-all informality of Basquiat, the consumerist references of Andy Warhol, the absurdist humor of dadaism and the semiautobiographical lilt of James Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.
Consider Staples, then, as a human of indeterminate origins who is using rap as a medium to document whatever he's going through at the moment, saying what he feels one day even if that changes the next, creating cerebral snippets in the process that get mixed, mastered and endlessly streamed as products of capitalism that take on meanings and lives of their own, removed from their creator's intentions.
Since his days cranking out songs by the dozens while crashing on the couch at Syd Tha Kyd's house almost a decade ago, Staples has grown into an obstinate young man whose opinions change daily, armed with an elephant's memory, a love of contemporary art museums, an air of wisdom that can come across as arrogance and — now, after being granted the luxury of time and money — a vision of himself as an artist in the truest sense of the word.
"There's no museum or gallery for music," he explains, "so what I do is create that gallery through an album or through a music video to showcase the different bodies of work I created during a certain period of time — a period piece, if you will."
It makes sense that Staples compares his work to an art gallery show rather than to any hip-hop forebears. He has long rejected the lifestyle that many associate with high-profile rappers; he's never smoked weed and doesn't drink alcohol. He operates as he always has, in a vacuum surrounded by a small circle of friends, independent of other musicians and the industry at large.
"Go to the MOCA and you'll see a retrospective by a certain artist — all the works from this time to this time. That's what an album is. Press play, listen to it, take from it what you want, and go the fuck home. ... I said what I have to say in those 12 songs."
Big Fish Theory starts with the whoosh of clouds rushing past your face, as if you're soaring free, high above the concrete jungle of Summertime '06. Slowly, other elements drop into the soothing atmospherics: a skittish keyboard, a two-step beat, a woman's voice, lasers. The record ends in a flurry of electronic raindrops and Celtic flutes, not midsentence like Summertime '06 but mid-everything, leaving you waiting for a beat to drop.
In between are the two previously released songs, "BagBak" and "Big Fish" (both summer-ready bangers with anthemic choruses built for large sound systems), and a half dozen other tracks that sonically veer so far from anything that's come out of Staples' mind before that you'd almost think it's a different rapper's name on the cover. Lyrics don't take you back to Ramona Park, to the past; they reflect the reality of his current jet-set life (anxieties, esoteric struggles and all).
In fact, with glitchy-computer garage and fast-paced industrial wobble straight out of a 4 a.m. techno warehouse party, it's hard to consider Big Fish Theory a rap album at all.
"If a photographer took the same picture over and over again, you'd call them crazy, right? If an architect built the same house, if a designer made the same clothes, if a painter made the same painting — we'd all discredit them," Staples says of why he refuses to revisit old sounds.
"Then why do we expect musicians, and rappers specifically, to do the same thing over and over and over? It's because they do not look at rap music as art. They like to say the word, but they're not really holding anything to those standards."
Ideas for new songs and albums, including Big Fish Theory, just appear in Staples' head now. As he tells it, he wakes up one morning and the entire concept is there, lyrics and all, so he calls his manager, books some studio time and records.
Staples does not make beats or play any instruments. He doesn't think in terms of genres (if you mention one, he'll quickly say, "I don't know what the fuck that is"), which would make for a very difficult writing process if not for his core group of longtime friends and confidants, all of whom wander in and out of the lounge at EastWest Studios as we talk.
There's Tyler Benard, nicknamed Westside Ty, whose house off Pico Boulevard is where much of Staples' Def Jam albums were conceived; and Zack Sekoff, a 21-year-old Yale student and multi-instrumentalist home on summer break, who first made a name for himself as a beatmaker working with Thundercat.
Together with a few others — all under 25, some friends since childhood — they help translate Staples' spontaneous curatorial visions into actual, playable melodies and rhythms. Smyth, who works with everyone from Talib Kweli to Dave Chappelle, refers to the squad as "the kids."
Big Fish Theory was crystallized through this process. It started with a nugget of a question: "What does a robot sound like?" and when Staples explained it in his own (genre-free) words, Benard was able to determine he was referring to the techno and house sounds of the '90s, with which Sekoff had already experimented.
"He was talking a lot about techno and Detroit techno and how there's something to be had in that aesthetic," says Sekoff, who was studying in London at the time, listening to a lot of Burial and grime. "That there's a city story to be told, it's not just about festivals out in the desert somewhere."
"I never know what the fuck I'm saying," Staples adds. "They've all known me long enough to know what I'm talking about, and it's like that."
These behind-the-scenes collaborations among Staples and his close friends are what can happen when a big label like Def Jam gets behind the latest generation of creative young minds, kids who grew up with the internet of options, where genres are for fogies who still think that music can be categorized. Without the burden of history or expectations, they possess an unparalleled freedom to create a new narrative, to not follow in any footsteps, to forge new paths. They spew obscure inside jokes on the regular and launch into heated intellectual arguments about pop culture specifics or discuss whether the people in the room are millennials or Generation Z. "I've never said the word 'millennial' in my life. That's some internet shit," Staples remarks.
In November they launched a monthly radio show on Beats 1 called SEA Broadcast System (Section Eight Arthouse), where Staples and a rotation of friends conduct interviews and curate playlists of disparate sounds. If SEA's shows make you feel out of the loop, it's probably because you are.
"I think it's special to work with someone who has a loop that's similar to your loop, or just the fact that you've spent time around each other and have similar references," Sekoff says. "If [Vince says], 'That snare is boof,' I can think about what we've listened to or what our mutual acquaintances are listening to and know what he means. So often with music now, people are just put in the room together that don't know each other. Not here."
Once Staples and his friends finalize the first five or six songs for an album, he says, "The rest is easy." With a reference point firmly in place, he invites other people down to the studio to hear the tracks and waits for more beats to float in.
Though I listened to Big Fish Theory in its entirety, no one would tell me the song titles, the producers who collaborated with Staples or whose voices I heard featured. Staples doesn't want anyone to read about the record first and put it on a pedestal before they hear it; he wants his listeners to be in the moment and decide if they like it as music, not as "Vince Staples featuring whoever" music.
"All I can tell you is that it's current. It's tomorrow. It's next Thursday," Staples says, only half joking. "We making future music. It's Afro-futurism. This is my Afro-futurism. There's no other kind."
Staples wasn't always an artist this in control of his image and his music, nor did he always want to be. For a kid who admits that he never felt the urge to do anything — not school, not rapping, not even gangbanging — winding up with a major-label deal and the independence and resources to create without worrying about the consequences could seem like a fluke.
Lots of credit for getting Staples to where he is today should go to his manager, Smyth, who says he saw early potential in the young rapper.
To Smyth, it didn't matter that the mixtapes Staples had at the time were poorly produced, that his cadence was nowhere near where it needed to be or the song structure was bad. After Smyth first heard the dry humor on an early track called "Matlock" and saw Staples perform onstage at SXSW, when the rapper was only 17, he knew the risk was worth taking.
"I thought he was hilarious. He jumped on a stage that had nothing to do with him — at the most hip-hopped–out show ever — and for 15 minutes he was there looking out at those kids like, 'You don't even know. This is over your head,'" Smyth says.
Credit, of course, should also go to Staples himself, who has used the comfort afforded him in the last three years to explore his own creativity, something he had never considered taking seriously before. Financial security has allowed him to treat his rap career like a real job, giving him the peace of mind to spread out and grow emotionally and artistically, a rarity for many musicians. For a young artist still trying to figure out who he is as he rolls into his early 20s, the flexibility is huge. It means his own perspective changes often, sometimes day to day, making it hard to relate to statements (or even music) made by some former self.
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"I was a piece of shit when I was 21. I wouldn't say I fully knew what I was talking about then," Staples says after being asked to defend a quote from the Hell Can Wait era. "I wasn't almost 24 working on a decent income and a decent understanding of what I want to be for the rest of my life. It's just time. A lot of people don't get time. Time heals all paths, they say."
These days, Staples lives somewhere on the Westside and spends most of his year on the road (up next: a set of summer shows with Gorillaz). The electronic-heavy Big Fish Theory drops at the end of this month and likely with it, confusion from those who once labeled him a gangster rapper.
But Staples isn't concerned with what people think of him or of the music he felt like making this time around.
"The worst thing that can happen is people don't like it. To me, that's a win: Someone can not like your music and not give you some money," he says, getting up for a haircut in the main room of Studio 1. "The shit I come from, I'll take that every time."