Stop offering Vince Staples weed.
"Life is hard," the 21-year-old Long Beach rapper says. He stares at you when he speaks, unblinking, his limpid eyes catching yours with the precision of a shackle clicking into a padlock. "But I've never done [drugs or alcohol]. I didn't want to be in any shape or form altered, especially with the shit I was doing when I was younger. I don't have a problem knowing how fucked up everything is. I never wanna be in the dark about anything."
It's Cinco de Mayo, a holiday many in L.A. use as an excuse to get white-people-wasted, and Staples is sprawled on a couch in a Sunset Boulevard studio where Frank Sinatra used to record. Wearing a letterman jacket, shredded black jeans and a Western belt he bought at Walmart, he's a little bit country, a little bit jock 'n' roll. He prefers doing interviews here because if he doesn't like the writer, he can just leave and go back into the booth.
That he has such a strategy speaks to how in demand he is. His major-label debut album, Summertime '06 (out this summer on Def Jam), executive produced by the Chicago legend who groomed Kanye West, No I.D., is one of the most anticipated rap releases of the year. ESPN2 invited Staples to be a guest commentator, and his label representative and manager are currently naying and yea-ing a list of respected publications clamoring to sit down with him. He even has a small role in the upcoming Sundance darling Dope.
Still, Staples is hesitant to bask in the attention. For starters, being a rapper was never his dream. Plus, where he's from, attention usually isn't a positive thing.
"I'm probably never gonna be the big one. But I'm fine with that," he says, stoic enough that this stance rings true. "It's very clique-ish and high school–ish in this music shit. I don't really fit in with that because I was a clique banger and a gangbanger and don't wanna be a part of that no more. It breeds anger and hatred."
Sighing, he pushes away a takeout container of cold nachos.
"I don't know how you possibly got more questions," he says. "We should just go bowling next time."
I first met Staples in the spring of 2011 at a skate demo in the Westfield Culver City mall, where Mike G of Odd Future was performing a few songs. Besides the fact that all we talked about was books, Staples seemed like a typical 17-year-old. He didn't mention that he was the dude whose verse on "epaR" out-appalled Earl Sweatshirt's.
Later that night, the rapper Speak grabbed my arm. "Watch out for this kid," he said. "He's Earl's only equal."
A few months later, I was at his maternal grandmother's house in Compton, the same one depicted on the cover of last October's Hell Can Wait, the clearheaded, promising EP that was his first commercial project. Perched on the edge of a table, Staples' rangy, naturally athletic frame looked small, like he had shrunk back to the height he was during the years he stayed there.
He was born in a Bellflower hospital the summer of 1993, a year after the Rodney King riots. The family lived in East Long Beach, his mom working at a car company and his dad gangbanging. Staples doesn't talk to his father these days. But as detailed in "Nate," the jazzy, devastating standout from last spring's Shyne Coldchain Vol. 2 mixtape, his dad deeply marked him, both for better ("Uncle counting money while my daddy cutting grams/Made me promise that this shit would never touch my hands") and worse ("As a kid all I wanted was to kill a man/'Cause my daddy did it").
After watching his dad go to jail on Christmas Day while he was in first grade, Staples began shuttling back and forth between his folks' and his grandparents' houses. For the most part, his grandma and grandpa raised him, keeping him inside the house and "Jesus'ed up." He bounced around from one Christian school to another, playing and excelling in every sport in which he picked up a ball, until he decided to stop attending when he was a junior in high school just because he didn't like it.
That he also had become gang-affiliated in Long Beach probably contributed to his decision to drop out, and both contributed to the problems he and his mother were having. He doesn't really know how he started rapping, and he certainly never planned on doing it as a career.
"I never really thought about what I was gonna be in my whole life, ever," he says. But it was during one of the spells his mom kicked him out that he ended up sleeping in Syd tha Kyd's studio, hanging with the Odd Future crew, recording "epaR" and, unknowingly, starting his career.
Staples is tough to categorize. He was a gangbanger, but he's not a gangster rapper. His lyrics are politically charged, but he's not a conscious rapper. He's painted some lurid pictures, but he's not a shock rapper. He's too serious to be Wiz Khalifa, too self-assured to be Kanye West, not weird enough to be Young Thug, not thugged-out enough to be YG. He's just, in his words, "regular." Maybe that's why he predicts he won't be "big."
Yet his gift for distilling what he has witnessed and experienced into affecting yet unsentimental rhymes could swing the pendulum toward popularity. And his opinions on social economics are trenchant and timely. The video for "Señorita," the first single off Summertime '06, portrays just another day in the dark underbelly of L.A., with a twist that's a scathing indictment of poverty porn. He wrote the fuck-tha-police banger "Hands Up" on Hell Can Wait before the Ferguson chant of "Don't Shoot." "LBPD, no they ain't 'bout shit/LAPD, no they ain't 'bout shit/LASD, no they ain't 'bout shit/Riding 'round these streets giving out full clips." He's seen this movie too many times, and he's sick of it.
"I still gotta watch my homies go to jail," he says. "I just was on the phone with somebody who just got charged with murder one. He's like, 'I'm not tripping.' We're raised like that — that it's OK you might never get out of jail."
It's also telling that when Staples lists the three events in his life that made him who he is — his grandfather's death, a close friend getting shot, another friend murdered — they all have to do with death or violence.
"Where I come from, the police doin' gang sweeps at 2-year-olds' birthday parties. Throwing niggas' mamas on the ground," he says. "I learned a long time ago you can't control this shit. If they wanna get you, they're gonna get you. No reason to worry about it. Hopefully my turn don't come no time soon. But everybody get a turn."
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It's a chilling observation, one he seems too young to make. But he says it soberly, and his gaze doesn’t waver.