In an era where most artists are so scared about losing their spot that they flood the market to the point of consumer apathy, Long Beach’s own Vince Staples has taken a calculated risk on his new project. Three years on from the release of the frenetic and conceptually rich FM!, the renowned and always amiable MC has decided to stick with sparsity on this eponymous project. And where that may seem like a fast-track to a disgruntled fanbase, this record, which comprises eight tracks and two thematically relevant interludes, is a rare demonstration of the strengths of succinctness.
Devoid of features other than soothing vocal showings from Foushee and fellow Northside native Vonnie D, this end-product can only be achieved when an artist takes ownership of a project’s articulation from the ground-up. His first release under the Motown/Blacksmith banner, it is only fitting that Vince has used this change of administration and symbolic fresh start as a way to evolve his sound and songwriting approach. All the while, retaining that razor-sharp wit and disenfranchised outlook.
However, it should be stated from the outset that if you’re solely looking for Vince to entertain you with a sardonic sense of humour, then this is not the project for you. Filtered through memories from his past and the reality of life as ‘the one who made it out’, this project sees Vince shedding the safety net of his ability to find the funny side of morbid circumstance, in order to reckon with how the trauma can warp any given situation.
“Tyler and Alchemist said, man you always got such good stories, why don’t you put it in the music?” Vince said during a recent trip to LA Leakers. “It was always how it was shown. The production wasn’t right, the tempo wasn’t right, things can get lost in translation… I just kind of wanted the messages to be at the forefront.”
In what was obviously a lightbulb moment for Vince, this record sees him acting as less of a storyteller and more of a diarist, scribbling down insecurity-laden musings and noting the common threads as he goes. Over an unobtrusive but no less engaging sound bed from frequent partner-in-crime Kenny Beats, Vince’s self-titled project is preoccupied with the idea of feeling secure in a world where, dangers, whether past or present, lurk around every corner.
Gripped by an outlook on the world that breeds eternal second-guessing, Vince sets the tone for the gauntlet of everyday fears on the electrifying “Are You With That.” Swathed in a bass-heavy but neo-soul infused beat, Vince unveils a new melodic flow that allows him to survey everything from the prospect of his own funeral to his longing to recapture youthful days with lost friends, in a way that is more palatable to the listener than it really has any right to be.
A recurring motif throughout the project, Vince and Kenny Beats– with some assistance from Chicago’s Monte Booker– have created a fascinating contrast between sonics and subject matter that allows Staples to vocalize his darkest thoughts while keeping the listeners engaged.
Maintaining shreds of the dance music influence from projects such as Big Fish Theory, the ghostliness of the vocal samples on tracks like “Law Of Averages” and “Sundown Town” register as though they are dispatches from his past life. Taking cues from UK-based masterminds such as James Blake and Jai Paul, the sustained wooziness of the record is yet another example of how Kenny Beats hits his sweet spot when given the opportunity to oversee a project from start to finish. Incorporating everything from Spanish guitar on “Take Me Home” to the Bollywood-horror sampling bombast of “Lil Fade,” the man that Vince once dubbed an “officer of the law” has pleaded his case as Staples’ go-to producer.
Despite Kenny’s stellar contributions, there’s no mistaking who, or more precisely what, is the star of the show here.
Dabbling with repetition and tongue-twisting wordplay in his choruses, it is Vince’s stream of consciousness-style delivery and approach to the project’s lyricism that is what elevates the project from tonally-pleasing to something truly remarkable. From his trepidation over engaging with his audience and “being too paranoid to shake they hands” on “Sundown Town” to his matter-of-fact declaration that we “die broke or living with broken hearts” on “The Shining,” it is the fractured excerpts of Staples’ inner monologue that make this record into the immensely re-playable experience that it is.
LISTEN: Vince Staples “Shining”
Where this eponymous record really shines is in the anecdotal stories that, while relatively inconsequential and tragically familiar to Vince on the surface, go a long way to giving us a clearer picture of his worldview. Case in point, this excerpt from the spacey “Taking Trips” in which he spits,
“I hate July, crime is high, the summer suck (We run it up)
Can’t even hit the beach without my heat, it’s in my trunks
They ride the tide (Yeah)
I don’t got no one to trust”
Delivered as offhandedly and intimately as it would be to a friend, Vince’s admission that even the joyousness of the summer comes with a dark side is in keeping with the key philosophy of the album.
Filled with masterful quips and poker-faced insights into the darkness of humanity, Vince Staples is an example of how sticking to your vision will ensure that others are more liable to come along for the ride. Where he has given into the notion of the “big” song before and tried to write radio hits, this new record is almost anomalous in hip-hop as it is not built for inclusion in playlists. Where many modern rap albums feel as though they’ve been sequenced at random, everything here is precise and provides a flow which implores you to listen to the project from start-to-end without any interruptions. And while his refusal to deliver another “Norf Norf” or seek big name collaborations may keep a ceiling on his fame, it’s evident that Vince is more concerned with producing art than he is with the artificial world of celebrity.