Vince Staples - Señorita

Vince Staples:
a Wise Head on Young Shoulders

© Juan José Ortiz

Words by:

Vince Staples rubs his eyes. He’s come straight to the hotel from a freestyle session at Tim Westwood’s Capital XTRA studio and he’s visibly jet-lagged from a transatlantic flight, but he insists that we get the interview going while his crew check in. Today is his 22nd birthday, and
I ask if he’ll at least take a little time off to celebrate? He raises an eyebrow as if the question is absurd. “Hell no. I don’t do any of that stuff. I don’t have any party habits.”

The Long Beach rapper chooses not to drink, he doesn’t smoke, sip lean, pop ‘molly’ or assert his ego with emotionless sexual conquests – he’s settled in a long- term relationship. A total disinterest in hedonism is just one example of the way that he follows his own lead. Much of his lyricism is based on his experiences as a member of the Crip gang, but his honest, steely-eyed perspective is devoid of the kind of glamour that presents the lifestyle as a marketable fantasy. And although he signed to Def Jam in 2013, his first LP for the legendary major label is Summertime ’06 – a 20 track record which features no potential radio hits. So does he agree that he’s kind of a hard sell?

“Yeah, but so were the Beastie Boys,” he says, referencing the unlikely early breakout stars of Def Jam’s early days. “I’m not signed to Def Jam to be the biggest artist on the label. I’m not there to be Iggy Azalea or Justin Bieber, I’m there to be myself. They understand that. We didn’t come to Def Jam like we were gonna have a radio hit, but they weren’t expecting one.”

But while Vince seems unwilling to compromise when it comes to image or lyrical content, over the years he’s managed to sustain a buzz that’s secured him a mid-range level of success. This year he appeared on the cover of XXL magazine alongside industry-backed artists such as Tink and Raury as well as viral-hit stars Dej Loaf and Fetty Wap as part of their influential ‘Freshmen List’. It’s an accolade that could offer a small taste of fame, but Vince remains cautious. “You have to earn loyalty,” he says. “I think [Summertime ’06] is a good step in that direction. Because the radio doesn’t sell records. It does in a sense, but not really in hip-hop. Because the fans are stealing shit, let’s be real. They either stream it or download it.”

Our interview takes place a couple of days after the mainstream rapper Tyga had been widely mocked for the abysmal sales of his fourth LP The Gold Album. Having been caught up in the dramatic meltdown of Cash Money Records, Tyga rush-released the album, sharing a link to the Spotify stream before posting the iTunes shortly after. Although The Gold Album credits Kanye West as an executive producer and had social media support from the Kardashians, the album clocked a measly 2,200 sales in its first week, and therefore Tyga felt the unforgiving wrath of rap Twitter.

“It’s fucking ridiculous,” Vince argues. “Why do we even care? Why are we looking at people’s numbers? Because we’re looking for a reason to feel like ‘Oh they’re worth something’ or ‘they’re worthless’. More than 2000 people heard it. That says more about the listener than the artist. Tyga didn’t fuck up, you fucked up. Cause he had four million streams on Spotify alone. Before streaming, that probably would have been four million dollars.”

"I don’t know the answers, I’m just a fucking regular person that writes rap music. But I feel like we all have the power, we all have that voice"

Although Def Jam may have opened his eyes to the mechanisms of the industry, the real story of Vince Staples’ development is based on the growing maturity of his lyricism. After returning to LA from a brief spell in Atlanta, where his family sent him to steer him away from trouble, Vince found himself in the company of Earl Sweatshirt and Syd tha Kid of the then-burgeoning Odd Future collective. Despite having no previous desire to rap at all, Vince had a natural gift for wordplay, and his new friends encouraged him to flaunt a dark, twisted sense of humour in the recording booth. “I didn’t care about any of that stuff like 2009, 2010,” he says dismissively. “I was like 14, 15 years old, you know what I mean? I’m an older person now, you don’t act how you do when you were 15 or 16, and if you do, you got some fucking problems.”

Vince released Shyne Coldchain Vol.1 – his first full length mixtape – in 2011. And while it saw him begin to shed his old persona and broaden lyrically, an air of gloomy nihilism lingered. “Rap ain’t never did shit for a nigga with no options / If you want some positivity go listen to some Common,” he rapped. Three years later, Vince found himself contributing an emotive verse to Common’s track Kingdom, and at 2014’s BET hip-hop awards, they performed a remix of the song alongside Jay Electronica. At the end of the performance, the trio were joined onstage by the parents of Michael Brown – the unarmed African-American teenager who was killed by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri – and the entire crowd raised their hands for a moment of silence.

© Juan José Ortiz

The BET tribute was inspired by the “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” slogan which dominated the widespread protests following Brown’s death. With lyrics which describe the prejudice and brutality the police force inflict on young black men and women, many presumed that the chorus and title of Vince’s track Hands Up was inspired by the slogan, but he insists that wasn’t the case. “The world is a fucked up place, like I made that song a year before that shit happened,” he clarifies, “we just didn’t have a beat for it. That shows you how much things haven’t changed.”

Hands Up saw Vince Staples vent a righteous sense of rage like a young Ice Cube: “Payin’ taxes for some fuckin’ clowns to ride around / Whoopin’ niggas’ asses, scared to man up / Handcuffs giving niggas gashes / On the wrist I use to lift my fist to fight the power with.” The track appeared Vince’s excellent 2014 EP Hell Can Wait, which now serves as a kind of prequel to Summertime ’06. Both records are inspired by a specific period in Vince Staples’ life – from November 2005 to the summer of 2006 – during which he witnessed the incarceration and death of his peers and followed his father’s footsteps by pursuing gang activity.

With harsh street anecdotes told from the perspective of a coldly streetwise teenager who’s been robbed of his youth, there’s no neatly-packaged value system or political conclusion to be drawn from the record, but only the most ignorant listener could feel apathetic towards the socio-political subtext behind Vince’s story. “I don’t know the answers,” Vince insists. “I’m not a politician or anything crazy, I’m just a fucking regular person that writes rap music. But of course, we all have opinions and we all have emotions. I feel like we all have the power, we all have that voice.”

There’s a moment on the album where Vince Staples’ stony exterior fully cracks. On the song Summertime, his vehement rapping is replaced by a light, croaky singing voice: “My teachers told me we was slaves / My mama told me we was kings / I don’t know who to listen to / I guess we’re somewhere in between / My feelings told me love was real / But feelings known to get you killed.” It’s a flicker of the emotion that’s often repressed in order to survive. And while Vince refrains from preaching or moralising, he’s aware that, as a hip-hop artist, he has the ability to shine light on the darkness.

“As long as people are creating something, it can have a relation to what’s going on in the world,” he says. “So whether it’s art or film or music – no matter what genre – it’s always going to have opportunities to be influences on the sense of what’s going on. And I feel like it should be that way.”

Summertime ’06 is out now via Def Jam.

Vince Staples appears at:

Øya Festival, Oslo, 11-15 August
Way Out West, Gothenburg, 13-15 August
Flow Festival, Helsinki, 14-18 August

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