Being informed doesn’t absolve you from misconduct. Vince Staples understands this better than most, and is an eye-rolling observer to fans who claim to “get it” while still acting in complete negligence. He’s grown tired of playing shows where “all these white folks chanting when I asked ‘em where my ni**as at?” — when he knows most wouldn’t dare venture through his hometown.

Staples is heralded as presenting with piercing honesty the elements of his Long Beach upbringing, zeroing in on racial tensions and fragmented communities — yet many listeners seem to represent the rapper without acknowledging the history behind his words. But Staples is aware he’s subject to his own judgment, noting the “fight between my conscious and the skin that’s on my body/Man I need to fight the power, but I need that new Ferrari.”

The tension between observation and action is central to Staples’ landmark LP Summertime ’06, released last year and second only to Kendrick Lamar's work in terms of 2015 hip-hop with clarity of vision and poise of execution. Staples is provocative for his simplicity and his prose is stark — poetic, even — in its authenticity. Def Jam MVP No I.D. executive-produced the project, imparting his influence in the icy soundscapes Staples’ uses as a backdrop for his juxtaposed tales of hedonism and necessitated survival.

Staples is not a “gangster rapper” — he says as much within the first 10 minutes of Summertime ’06 — but he is a product of gang culture. A former member of the 2N Crips, Staples’ past was shaped by external conflict driving an internal one. Despite this, and perhaps in part because of it, he boasts an authoritative defiance: both proud of his success in struggle, but inclined to wry remarks about those who use affiliation to posture or glamorize the lifestyle. Staples’ never seems out of step with his own reality — he’s a critical thinker who happens to be highly critical of his surroundings.

But being socially conscientious doesn’t make Staples “socially conscious” — a term often misapplied to advance one point of view at the expense of others. Staples knows his perspective doesn’t count more just because he raps of tragedy even in triumph. In fact, Staples doesn’t impart a bias so much as provide nauseating annotations of his environment. The album is packed with gritty details: “In the Planned Parenthood playin’ God with ya mom’s check/You ain’t even been to prom yet” (“Surf”); “I shot your child, so what, you know we wildin’ after dark/The sun come down and guns come out, you know Ramona Park” (“Birds and Bees”); “Homie where ya clout at? You ain’t ever push nobody’s scalp back” (“3230”).

More so than anything else, Summertime ’06 is about fear. Behind every one of Staples’ boasts about his great aim or steadfast bravery is an undercurrent of anxiety running beneath him. The beats on the record are a combination of threatening low-end and minimalist percussive patter, with Staples' straight delivery often providing the primary melody. During the summer of 2006 Vince Staples was 13 — now he’s 22, and giving voice to a narrative he couldn’t share whilst living through it.

“Summertime” is the emotional centerpiece of the album, a sobering love song that ends the first half with sentimentality weaved through solemnity. “This could be forever baby,” Staples offers on the hook, before remarking on a challenged development (“They never taught me how to be a man/Only how to be a shooter”). He sums up his difficult relationship with his community most succinctly by offering “My teachers told me we was slaves/My mama told me was kings/I don’t know who to listen to/I guess we somewhere in between.”

For all the world-building Vince Staples does on his debut, he’s become an impressive figure in rap in part due to sheer verbal skill. He’s won a devoted following with lyrical density delivered in rhythmically fulfilling flows that are blunt but never careless. His popularity is exemplified by two sold-out Noise Pop shows in San Francisco this weekend, one at Social Hall and the other at The Independent. Staples subject matter may seem discordant with the context of a “fun” concert, but the rapper’s music is immediate and enrapturing — and the medium in this case is what makes his message hit all the harder.

Vince Staples
Social Hall & The Independent
February 26 & 27, 2015
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