Vince Staples debut stays true to his sound and provides a remarkably honest and original take on gangsta rap.
Since NWA burst out of Compton with their first album in 1988, rappers have tried to portray the gritty realities of inner city life in the most honest way possible. When critics accuse them of glorifying crime and violence they say they aren’t passing judgement but just opening a window to a world where both things abound. However, as rap evolved, “gangsta rap” became less focused on reflecting reality and more concerned with fantasy. The trap-rap we hear today paints a picture of modern day Scarfaces; living in mansions surrounded by beautiful women, driving Lamborghinis and generally living the dope boy dream.
Vince Staples isn’t a rapper who deals in fantasy. He’s made a name for himself with his dark matter-of-fact descriptions of everyday life in gang-ridden inner city LA. Staples grew up in Long Beach, CA in an area dominated by the Crips, a gang to which he has belonged since his early teens. His keenly awaited debut album, Summertime ’06, was released last month.
The record stays consistent to the sound and content that Staples first won acclaim with. This isn’t a sunny celebration of Southern California’s women, weed and weather. The beats create a dark, creepy atmosphere. From the opening notes of the intro track “Ramona Park Legend Pt. 1” the tone is ominous and it doesn’t get much lighter from there.
The music does a great job of evoking the world Staples describes in his rhymes. He leads us through streets stained by poverty where serious violence is routine and enemies lurk around every corner. Staples plays the dead eyed veteran. He describes the death, gangs and murderous lust for money and respect unflinchingly. It doesn’t feel sensationalized or as if this blasé attitude is affected in order to prove something. It’s just the perspective of someone numbed to living in a hostile environment. Staples strength is his his ability to be blunt while still insightful. On Senorita he describes gang members attitude towards the necessity of violence, “Mask up at midnight and start clapping/ kids crying, still snipe him, no lacking”
Summertime’s subject is not particularly original, we’ve heard about gang-banging in LA plenty of times before. What makes it different though is the way it’s presented. There’s no bravado in Staples accounts. Neither does he ever offer heartfelt condemnation. The album seeks only to document the world it describes, it has no interest interest in offering simple judgements of good or bad. What does come through though on Staples part is a weariness and disillusionment.
Also, although the album understandably refers frequently to the gang life Staples grew up in, it speaks on larger frustrations beyond street life. There’s a frustration with the world at the heart of Summertime and confusion at the multitude of motivations that pull us in different directions. “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,” Staples raps on Lift Me Up.
There are glimpses of vulnerability and honesty on Summertime that also lift it above the standard record. On the track Summertime Staples takes a introspective, melancholy tone. “I’m searching for atonement, do I blame my darker tone?/ I know some things are better left unsaid and people left alone/ pick up the phone/don’t leave me alone in this cruel, cruel world.”
Summertime does a good job of keeping the same tone and feel throughout. It’s a double album with 20 tracks and it would have been easy for any intention or structure to have been diluted or lost. But it feels like a complete piece. Some tracks are more enjoyable than others but there’s nothing that seems out of place or unnecessary. Thankfully, there’s no weird anomalies thrown in to try and attract radio play. Even Future’s delivery of the hook on Senorita fits.
Summertime is a moody and dark journey through the eyes of its creator. Staples offers his experiences up without apologies or attempting to make them more palatable by applying a Hollywood gloss. Refreshingly, it sounds like a hip-hop album that’s not trying to follow a formula.