The Saturday Interview

Vince Staples: ‘The music industry monetises people’s struggles, pain, death and murder’

The Californian is a rarity in rap music: a tell-it-how-it-is storyteller who has no interest in the fame game. He talks to Yemi Abiade about revisiting his childhood for his new album, the problem with glamourising gang culture, and how he stays grounded

Thursday 08 July 2021 11:03 BST
Vince Staples: ‘We’ve seen people market and distribute death and destruction within our communities for decades’
Vince Staples: ‘We’ve seen people market and distribute death and destruction within our communities for decades’ (Tyree Harris)

Vince Staples is the antithesis of the modern-day mainstream rapper. He is stoic, self-effacing and decidedly unshowy. Whereas stars such as Drake, Lil Baby, and Tyler, The Creator are visible – never far from a red carpet or promotional gimmick – Staples prefers to lay low, letting his music speak for itself. “I blend into the background, and I think that’s a big misconception about artists, that they can’t,” he says over Zoom from his home in Long Beach, California. “You can build your own world. I don’t have to have security, I don’t have to live in a gated community, I don’t have to go to parties. I just create and I live within the world that I’ve tried to create for myself. I appreciate being able to have that kind of reality.”

Today, the reality is that Staples is tired and his webcam is off. But his breezy star quality is still palpable. Since the start of the 2010s, when his single “Norf Norf” marked out his blunt, claustrophobic style (and went gold without charting), he has garnered attention for being a witty, tell-it-like-it-is entertainer who is uninterested in the fame game. His Twitter account is hilarious (a recent Tweet: “I ain’t know about salmon till the iPhone came out. We was a red snapper household”) and, such is his comic timing in interviews, his fans often clamour for him to do stand-up. It turns out he’s been listening, and his new album this week comes with news of a forthcoming Netflix show (the details of which are yet to be revealed).

His humour is a counterbalance to his music, which often details his childhood spent on the north side of Long Beach among gangs, poverty and street warfare. He’s also divisive, a contrarian who ruffles the feathers of hip-hop elders with his unswerving observations of the music industry and the genre’s evolution. In 2015, a video by Time magazine titled “Rapper Vince Staples explains why the 90s are overrated” drew ire from some corners of hip-hop. In it, the rapper said that the only reason the Nineties is called the golden era of hip-hop is because of the late, great Biggie and Tupac. Famed rapper-turned-podcaster NORE deemed Staples’s comments “idiot statements from someone who we hardly know”.

But Staples rises above it all, because he’s one of the most engaging storytellers of his generation. The 28-year-old has led the life of someone twice his age, both personally and professionally. Before his rap career took off, he spent his teenage years in gangs, and his music explores the reality of that lifestyle. He never glamourises it, however: he wipes away the thrill of the streets, instead showcasing the inner and outer conflict, paranoia and sleepless nights that dominate an individual who is living a dangerous existence.

It’s far from the flashy picture of hood culture that gangsta rap has painted since the days of NWA; it’s bleaker, more nihilistic. Staples told The Guardian in 2015 that he “started gangbanging because I wanted to kill people. I wanted to hurt people. There’s no reason: it’s a bloodthirst.” Today, he says that his experiences have given him perspective and that rapping was a crucial escape. “Coming from where I come from and what I was doing prior to music, and what a lot of my family and friends are subjected to,” he says, with typical candour, “I can only be grateful [for music].”

Staples’s world was chaotic from the start. He was born in Compton, the youngest of five siblings, and his father was in and out of jail while his mother brought up the family. His elder sister was shot before the family made the move to Long Beach when Staples was still a child. Surrounded by the daily pressures of inner-city California, he soon got into trouble as a member of the infamous Crips gang – something he has said was down to his father’s absence. “He’s the reason I don’t do drugs or drink and I never will,” he told radio show The Breakfast Club in 2017. “He’s the reason why I think all this gang s**t is played out.”

This downward spiral was halted when Staples found kindred spirits in Los Angeles’ Odd Future collective, a crew of alternative rap misfits like Frank Ocean, Earl Sweatshirt, Syd, and Tyler, The Creator. His path was redirected. After a slew of mixtapes and collaborations with Earl, hip-hop heavyweight Common and the late Mac Miller, Staples released his debut Summertime ’06 in 2015, a double album offering a glimpse into the gang life he once led. In it he told stories about being racially profiled by the police (“Lift Me Up”), dealing drugs (“Dopeman”) and the angst of waking up each day to the possibility that it’s your last.

His sound, meanwhile, utilised the G-funk offshoot of hip-hop that is native to the west coast (and immortalised by Nineties legends Dr Dre and Snoop Dogg), but Staples wasn’t one to stay in a lane: his music doesn’t stick to straight-up hip-hop and his second album, 2017’s Big Fish Theory, was more inspired by house and Detroit techno than any emerging rap trends, with tracks produced by dance-music heads like James Blake and the late Sophie. Instead of courting big-name rap collaborations, he’s teamed up with alt-pop artists like Gorillaz and Santigold. He leverages the quirkiness of his sound with his sometimes jaded, sometimes animated, always incisive vocal tone, although he is typically breezy about how he decides what sounds to rap over. “If I like it, I like it; I just go with what feels good,” he says.

Vince Staples: ‘I just go with what feels good’
Vince Staples: ‘I just go with what feels good’ (Tyree Harris)

Another curveball release, 2018’s FM!, was a vibrant framing of a radio station anchored by recurring skits by Big Boy, a veteran of LA’s rap radio scene for as long as Staples has been alive. But now he’s back with a fourth album that seems as if he’s starting a fresh chapter. It’s self-titled and “tells a lot of my story”, says Staples, in a way that’s “more descriptive than anything before it”. A brief 22-minute affair, the album transports us back to Long Beach, clearly addressing the daily pressures Staples encountered not just in living, but in psychologically negotiating his position as a young man who, in spite of his surroundings, became successful. On every corner, he is reminded of the distrust he has in people, triggered by his gang past, and of being forced to keep his wits about him in case that past catches up with him. The interludes come courtesy of his mother, who details her anger issues, while “Lakewood Mall” sees one of his friends tell a story of narrowly avoiding a house party that ended with a homicide.

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The album’s subdued production from Kenny Beats – bringing it a little closer to G-funk and its obsession with sampling old soul records than the wilful experimentation of his previous releases – places an exclamation mark on his strife. On songs like “Sundown Town”, Staples reminisces about making money by selling drugs: “We was in the hood, rent was late, ain’t had Section 8, with the .38, and the eighth, moved on 68th.” Meanwhile, his paranoia and reclusiveness bleeds out on “Law Of Averages”, when he says: “Count my bands, all alone at home, don’t you call my phone, everyone that I’ve ever known asked me for a loan.”

The unswerving way in which he analyses his experiences might seem unsettling to some, but they are his. He raps in a conversational tone, as if these events happened very recently. But he is unapologetic about them, because they are part and parcel of his existence. “I’m just looking at life,” says Staples with an audible shrug. “Every song is just how I feel that day. I try to make sure my music speaks to my current state. I don’t dwell on the past.”

Vince’s casual nature flies in the face of mainstream hip-hop’s current climate, where many artists go to substantial extremes to prove themselves as people to be feared. Take the cautionary tale of the controversial NYC Soundcloud rapper Tekashi 6ix6ine, for example – a young man whose entire gimmick and appeal relied on his affiliation with a real-life gang, the Nine Trey Gangster Bloods, which he actually had very little to do with. Or YMW Melly, the Florida-based artist tipped for stardom after releasing the single “Murder On My Mind” in 2018, before being arrested and charged for the real-life murder of his best friend.

Staples blames the environment around 6ix9ine, Melly and others for their desire to project a hardcore image. “This is a business where we monetise people’s struggles, pain, death and murder,” he says. “If you’re a kid from a situation, and you feel the only way that you will get out of the situation where there’s immense poverty or bad home life or low self-esteem is by doing this thing that everyone is selling, you’re going to try to sell that thing. We’ve seen people market and distribute death and destruction within our communities for decades; they do these things because it gets attention. What do we really expect when we give people millions of dollars to say they’re tough? They’re gonna say they’re tough. It’s common sense.”

You could argue that there’s increased visibility of these rappers due to social media – which heightens the sensationalism around marketing their toughness, real or imagined, to wider audiences – but Staples thinks there’s too much focus on “bad boy” role models everywhere at the moment. “These people who do the wrong thing are always brought up [by the media], but no one who’s done the right things has been mentioned,” says Staples, drawing on Will Smith’s musician son as an example. “Jaden Smith gives food to the homeless and has a water company – I’ve never heard anyone say his name in an interview.”

‘I just create and I live within the world that I’ve tried to create for myself’
‘I just create and I live within the world that I’ve tried to create for myself’ (Tyree Harris)

The inner workings of rap, and how it rewards destructive behaviour, are part of a wider societal issue, but Staples hopes the genre continues to serve as a chance for black people to express themselves and, in cases such as his, save themselves from a darker destiny. “As long as rap continues to be a medium to help people get their families out of poverty, get their stories heard and filter through their creativity to their emotions,” he says, “that’s all I want. That’s all I care about. I don’t care what the next sound is going to be, only if the next kid is able to change their life.”

Staples proves to be incredibly perceptive, both of himself and of the world around him. Seeing things for how they are has kept him grounded, while not playing to the rules of the music industry has kept him focused on what is important. A mansion isn’t it, as he screams in new album track “The Shining”. He’s the last person to read the reviews of his releases, or worry about success. “I don’t look at things commercially or critically,” he concludes. “If I’m able to take care of my family, then I’m grateful.”

‘Vince Staples’ is out now on Blacksmith Recordings/Motown Records/EMI Records

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