Vince Staples Is a Mass of Seeming Contradictions

Steve Knopper
Chicago Tribune (TNS)

Hip-hop star Vince Staples’ new single, "BagBak", has sharp electronic production, clearly influenced by dance music and contemporary DJs.

Hip-hop star Vince Staples’ new single, “BagBak,” has sharp electronic production, clearly influenced by dance music and contemporary DJs, which he hasn’t shown much of in breakthrough albums such as 2015’s “Summertime ‘06” and last year’s “Prima Donna” EP. But Staples says the sound is of a piece with his earlier work, including “Blue Suede” and “Like It Is.”

“I don’t really think it sounds that different,” he said. “I don’t see it being that separate from what I’ve already done. It just falls in line.”

In a 15-minute talk by phone over a terrible mobile connection, with two of his reps on the line, Staples, a 23-year-old rapper from Long Beach, Calif., became quickly frustrated and retreated into vagaries. In response to the first question, “Where are you currently?” he responded: “I’ve no idea — we’re on the bus.” Asked for details about his upcoming release, due this year, he deferred to one of the reps: “Are we getting into that, or no?” The rep responded quickly, “No, we’re not discussing the new album yet.”

Even under these less-than-optimal circumstances, Staples gives bits of insight into his history and music. He has told reporters his grandparents immigrated to Los Angeles from the West Indies, and his grandfather got swept up in the rise of street gangs. According to a Vulture profile, Staples’ maternal grandfather was an Army veteran, then a black nationalist, then a Crip, and Staples followed this troubling tradition against his parents’ will — he was a successful high school student but was expelled for what the article called “trumped-up charges.” After a time in Long Beach’s Naughty Nasty Crips, enduring the shooting of a close cousin who fell into a coma, Staples had an epiphany and shifted to hip-hop.

“I didn’t have a backup plan — I didn’t have a plan in the first place,” he said by phone. “I just got lucky, met the right people. I just needed a better situation.”

Staples’ mother, Eloise, told a reporter last year that he pulled off Ray Charles singing “Georgia On My Mind” when he was a little kid, giving his family a hint of his musical talent. (Staples didn’t remember that: “That was like a story they told. I never was, growing up or anything, trying to make music. That was never a thought I had.”) But singing ability has served him well, as he often inserts his soft, gravely voice into his laid-back hip-hop aesthetic — on “Let It Shine,” which opens “Prima Donna,” he croons gospel into what sounds like a cassette recorder, then cuts himself off with a gunshot.

“I wanted it a different way than I opened my last album,” Staples said.

Staples began in the Cutthroat Boyz and quickly drew attention from established rappers, showing up on Earl Sweatshirt’s “epaR” and other tracks. He put out a series of his own mixtapes beginning in 2011, building up to his 2015 masterpiece “Summertime ‘06.” The two-disc, 20-track album is hazy and persistent, with repetitive sounds, like an amorphous swirl of synthesizers here or a gospel chorus there, offsetting the rumbling bass lines. In a voice filled with resignation, Staples chronicles slinging dope, his family’s entwinement with Los Angeles gangs and the history of black nationalism (“why they hate us? why they want to rape us for our culture?”) and makes references to Nate Dogg, Versace and Madonna. “I feel like Mick and Richards, they feel like Muddy Waters,” he raps on “Ramona Park Legend pt. 1.” “So tell me what’s the difference?”

Though generally more upbeat musically, “Prima Donna” hits on many of the same issues of violence and drugs and adds new layers of literature and politics. “Edgar Allan Poe tried to warn ‘em of demise, and all he seen was crows,” he declares on “War Ready.” Staples has rapped a couple of times about not voting, explaining to reporters he prefers to fund after-school programs. “I don’t speak about those things, it’s not my cup of tea,” he said in the interview. “I’m not opinionated about the Trump administration at all — I’ve never really said anything at all about him, ever. … I stay off that whole debacle.”

Has he discussed the new immigration orders and travel restrictions with his grandmother, an immigrant who has lived on the West Coast for much of her life? “No, but I don’t think she would really care,” Staples said. “Because they’ve been dealing with crazy things the entire time they’ve been here. Pretty sure they’re not going to care about this one.”

As the interview wound down, Staples was asked if he can say anything at all about the upcoming album — will it have the same feel as “BagBak”? “We’re always making music,” he said, “and always trying to do something with our music.”

What about the tour? “It’ll be more dynamic than before,” he said.

Anything else he’d like to add? “Just stop doing drugs, you know,” he said after a pause. “Kids should go to school.”

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