From the production to his lyrics, Long Beach rapper Vince Staples’ music is all about stark force. His debut full-length Summertime ‘06 hitches together the raw energy and determination of a mixtape with the cohesion and high production value of a blockbuster album, but even beyond the brusque touches of a rising freshman, the most impressive aspect of the record is how real Staples makes it feel. He pulls no punches: “I been through hell and back, I seen my momma cry / Seen my father hit the crack then hit the set to flip the sack / I done seen my homies die then went on rides to kill them back / So how you say you feel me when you never had to get through that?” he reflects on “Like it Is”, tearing down throwaway pop-rap music and his more privileged and socially indifferent followers in one fell swoop. Staples doesn’t strike me as someone who cares if you get the message or not; he just needs to say his piece.
The album is just as austere in its composition and song structure as it is in its bold attitude. Staples’ repetitive hooks anchor his whirlwind verses around production from big names like No I.D. and Clams Casino that blend the visceral minimalism of U.K. grime, the poppy drum sounds of classic West Side rap and the heady, bass-heavy simplicity of the Dirty South — classic sounds in a fresh context. Summertime ‘06 maintains a shadowy aesthetic with grim, blunt streetwise verses and production that, at its most subdued (“Señorita”, “Street Punks”), resembles Boi-1da’s dark, spacey contributions to If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late and, at its most subversive and belligerent (“Norf Norf”, “3230”, “Surf”), the less industrial cuts off of Yeezus. If Staples’ lyrical style is defined by his candid honesty, then Summertime ‘06’s crisp, upfront production matches it beat for beat.
Departures like the droning, sample-rich “Summertime” and the slinky, sentimental “Like It Is” come in at just the right time to break up the muscular immediacy of the album without seeming off-theme. Staples uses these opportunities to dig into his insecurities, getting to the crux of his transformation from innocence to maturity that serves as the thematic foundation for the record. “My teachers told me we was slaves / My mama told me we was kings,” he reflects on “Summertime”, and for all his macho street rhymes, he’s really just trying to navigate that juxtaposition as best he can.
That vulnerability is rarely made so apparent (“It’s so hard trying not to go so hard,” he mutters on “Ramona Park Legend, Pt. 2”), but it’s crucial to the album’s thematic arc. On disc one, Staples wrestles with his vices (“Jump Off the Roof”) and indulges in hood politics (“Dopeman”, “Norf Norf”) with veiled social critique. He plainly lays out the narrative of his youth with familiar braggadocio (“Birds and the bees, they wannabees / They’ll never fuck with me”) and streetwise anecdotes (“Rounds up in the chamber, I’m a gangsta like my daddy”). He adopts a more critical point-of-view on disc two where he bites back at that perspective, replacing drug deal swagger with a preacher’s judgment: “When the smoke clear, why was the war fought? / ‘Bout time you abandon the folklore” (“Surf”). That both sides of the story live on in Staples’ music is not a contradiction; Summertime ‘06 is an exploration of the revelations of a young mind on the streets, absorbing, learning and developing, and the perspective a mature man who went through it and came out the other side far wiser.
On “Lift Me Up”, the album’s first full song, Staples sets the stage: “Fight between my conscience and the skin that’s on my body / Man, I need to fight the power, but I need that new Ferrari.” Summertime ‘06 is the kind of coming-of-age story that’s common to hip-hop, but Staples delivers his account with a furious passion and refreshing insight. That the album is wall-to-wall with catchy, hard-hitting bangers is almost just a consolation prize.