Vince Staples - the gold standard for emcee’s crafting modern, alternative West Coast Hip Hop. No one quite does it like him, rising to fame with peers like Earl Sweatshirt, and Tyler, The Creator, and still making equally captivating music. He’s one of the most talented artists in rap today… from the gritty, dark vibrations of ‘Summertime 06’, to the abrasive, experimental soundscapes of ‘Big Fish Theory’, pioneered by the likes of electronic artists SOPHIE and Flume, who Vince partnered with effortlessly.
If his music isn’t already consistent enough, Vince Staples always seems to have magnificent cover art… From the luminous visuals of ‘Big Fish Theory’ to the Green Day and Joy Division influenced sleeves of ‘FM!’ and ‘Summertime 06’, he puts effort into every aspect, and draws from artists you wouldn’t expect him to. The grainy, bleak close-up of Vince almost has a pop-art type quality to it; Vince even alludes to this on the Latin influenced ‘LIL FADE’ where he raps ‘Still hangin’ like a Warhol’. Unlike Warhol though, Vince’s cover is devoid of colour, and instead has sepia tones like an old, faded newspaper or comic book - It’s quite a distinction to the striking modern sound he embraces so confidently on this LP, despite some heavy subject matter, and the album arrives just over a week from the 6th anniversary of his debut…
‘Summertime 06’ does not feel like six years ago. ‘FM!’ – the heavily west coast influenced collaboration with Kenny Beats definitely does not feel like nearly three years ago. The radio-show style, loose concept album was only 22 minutes long, and as undeniable as Kenny and Vince’s chemistry is, it was definitely a little weaker than his previous two major drops. Whilst an enjoyable, concise LP with a mixtape quality, there were unfortunately a couple of mediocre tracks.
This time, Kenny Beats is once again providing the instrumentals. This new record also clocks in at 22 minutes, with 10 songs - 2 of which are interludes, and not one track is over 3 minutes. But, the length of the project isn’t necessarily a drawback, similarly to Kanye West’s series of albums produced in Wyoming, which resulted in some great music – it’s just a shame we’ve had to wait years, rather than weeks, but the impact is still high.
Similarly to his fantastic breakthrough EP ‘Hell Can Wait’, this one is very autobiographical and explores similar themes, but Vince raps with more simplicity and ease. He’s not necessarily utilising his vivid storytelling and captivating wordplay to the maximum like on ‘Summertime 06’, but he’s crafting better hooks, and his ear for melody has progressed fluently. That’s also thanks to Kenny Beats - his bouncy, yet simplistic beats make this track list the perfect environment for Vince to find little pockets for his unique inflections and flows. From the opener, the lyrical content is tough, but he’s still boldly delivering a heavy verse over production with a very similar chord progression to WHAM!’s ‘Last Christmas’.
The album flows well throughout, transitioning casually from one track to another. Vince may sound laidback and relaxed, but he’s extremely open on this album, without being arrogant – ‘SUNDOWN TOWN’ is a standout, hazy track where he seemingly nonchalantly raps:
“I don’t fear no man, only Allah got the upper hand, Lost too many friends, to the down the streets, I can’t pretend - That I'll make amends, I know that the blood gon' spill again, Hangin' on them corners, same as hangin' from a ceiling fan.”
Given the self-titled name for the LP, it makes sense for him to use it as a diary of thoughts, stories, and experiences to share with us. Speaking on the album, Vince Staples stated ‘It really gives much more information about me that wasn’t out there before. That’s why I went with that title. I feel like I’ve been trying to tell the same story. As you go on in life, your point of view changes. This is another take on myself that I might not have had before’. It makes sense for Vince to want to tell the audience more after the brief amount of time we heard him on ‘FM!’ and ‘Big Fish Theory’, but he almost hides away the melancholia of his lyricism through bright, optimistic sounding production; although he sounds at ease, he’s still talking about sensitive issues.
This time round, the tracks are more accessible for fans of modern Hip Hop and Trap, which perhaps has something to do with a conversation he had with rapper SAINt JHN. Ignore the overwhelmingly pretentious reviews claiming this one isn’t an easy listen, or that it’s a flawless concept album that displays Vince’s vulnerabilities… It is a concise, digestible listen. Vince can still be very thought provoking, but it’s done so in a way where the listener doesn’t have to linger on each line, and instead they’re naturally carried through each song. Vince opens up about his distrust on this record, rapping that he’s too paranoid to shake hands, not knowing whether fans are friends or foe, but he doesn’t elaborate further - it’s obvious to most why he is this way, so he just keeps us drifting through.
Whilst it’s definitely entertaining and catchy, the finished project is not quite up to the bar set by Kenny Beats collaboration ‘Unlocked’ with Denzel Curry, where Kenny matches Denzel’s energy perfectly. He’s a very talented producer that knows to adapt, but this can almost hinder him sometimes. Kenny tends to be both versatile, and one-note… He can change to any rappers desired style, but sometimes stays too comfortably in that lane when he’s there. ‘LAW OF AVERAGES’ is a nice exception, with its James Blake-esque chipmunk pitched vocal sample that gives a haunting backdrop to Vince’s calmly vicious raps – lines like ‘Kiss yo' baby in the face if you play with where I stay’ give us a surprising insight into his upbringing and gang associations.
Like ‘FM!’, the project is solid, and maybe it’s even greater than FM!. It’s always good to see notably acclaimed alternative Hip Hop artists like Vince Staples, BROCKHAMPTON and Tyler, the Creator return with quality records now that the pandemic is easing. For me, the experimental and raw sounds of his early work is when he’s at his best, which this is a continued departure from - but Kenny Beats is still providing some really good instrumentals, and Vince has excelled in song writing, it would just be good to see him work with a wider, more versatile array of producers again.
If you’re a fan of the playful energy of ‘FM!’, this might be one for you – but naturally it’s full of darker, moodier moments as a result of Vince’s claustrophobic, violent upbringing. It’s somewhat of an ode to dead friends and troubled childhoods, however, it might not quite reach the innovative highs of ‘Big Fish Theory’ or ‘Summertime 06’ if you crave the gritty, alternative sonics of the rapper’s earlier discography.
With his first two albums constantly fighting for the top spot, for me it’s his third strongest record – but, still better than a lot of emcees best efforts, with its mature approach to themes of poverty and unrest, without coming across macabre. I enjoyed this one a lot, but if you come away from it disappointed, you could always do some digging into somewhat hidden gems like his ‘Prima Donna’ EP, his acclaimed ‘Stolen Youth’ collaborative tape with production from Larry Fisherman (aka Mac Miller), or the excellent ‘Shyne Coldchain 2’ mixtape (which includes the buzz-stirring classic ‘Nate).
Give this one a listen - there’s a lot to dig into here. It’s a great achievement for such a short LP, with it’s lugubrious lyrics that are desolate of any hope, contrasting drastically to the occasionally dreamy, upbeat instrumentals. It’s not quite the adventure of a ‘Good Kid, M.A.A.D City’ or an ‘Oxymoron’, but the trauma in Vince’s voice seems almost immobilising for him, but before we can remain on a thought, the album is nearly finished. If you’re a fan of Vince’s commentary on songs like ‘3230’, ‘Surf’, and ‘Screen Door’, then listen carefully to his verses, and don’t be too distracted from the intentionally misleading production. But, if you want a casual, background listen, its more than okay for that too.
At surface level, it seems like a counterpart to the brief look into the world of FM!, but it’s much more of a continuation of Vince’s life story, and is well worth a spin. It might not leave its mark over time, but its sharp replay value and sunny beats are perfect for the upcoming heatwave we are in desperate need of, and will tide you over until his future Netflix show and his already announced forthcoming project, ‘Ramona Park Broke My Heart’. Really, we need some live dates desperately, so let’s hope he’ll be in the UK soon.