Seven years ago, Vince Staples released his debut album, Summertime ’06, the buggy, bleary masterpiece that earned the good-natured once-gangbanger from Long Beach a great deal of mainstream acclaim. This wasn’t quite a breakout album—even “Norf Norf” and “Señorita” were a bit too screwy and dark for the Hot 100 of the mid-2010s—but Summertime ’06 was one of the most interesting hip-hop debuts of the past decade.
Before Def Jam signed him to his earliest record deal, Staples came up alongside the blog stars of the early 2010s: Odd Future, Kendrick Lamar, Ty Dolla $ign, A$AP Rocky, and the late Mac Miller. He ran in the right circles. He opened the right tours. But in his music, time and again, he’s taken some unconventional turns. His debut was stark survivalism. His second album, Big Fish Theory—his strongest to date, I’d argue—is a rave-rap bombshell. His latest project, Ramona Park Broke My Heart, out last Friday, is a relatively mellow album. It’s the sound of an angry and paranoid rapper somehow finding himself in a good place. Musically, spiritually, professionally—he’s been all over the place. But he has a remarkably steady hand for a rapper with such a fractured catalog. He always seems to know, in any given release year, exactly what he’s doing, why, and for whom.
It’s often easier to talk about him in terms of what he’s not. There’s no romance, no menace, no bullshit in his styling. He’s not quite gangsta but he’s not quite “conscious”; in fact, he seems to resent these archetypes. There’s gallows humor in his verses, but even that’s rather muted on most of his albums. There’s a startling candor. “I started gangbanging because I wanted to kill people,” Staples once told The Guardian. He’s a ruthless survivor with friends to memorialize, traumas to dissolve, sins to atone, threats to renew, and stories to tell. That’s the subtext to so much of his music: It is what it is. The critic Jayson Greene, reviewing Summertime ’06 for Pitchfork, once described Staples as “Chance the Rapper drained of hope.” Chance fell out of fashion circa 2019 with The Big Day in large part due to the relentless optimism and terminal cutesiness in his music. In contrast, Staples—even in his hip-house mode—voiced a perpetual wariness.
During his first couple of years in the limelight, Staples cultivated a peculiar reputation for his media savvy. He gave great quotes to magazines and radio shows. On Twitter, he’d stan the city of Atlanta, he’d eviscerate Chipotle, and he’d even tease the indomitable hater (and fellow rave-rap enthusiast) Azealia Banks. These social performances raised his profile within top-tier media, but also sent mixed signals about his music. Vince Staples, the celebrity, is this fun-loving provocateur whose interviews suggest a comedy roast. Vince Staples, the rapper, is this terse and traumatized figure whose music suggests a memorial service. “Shoot a nigga momma if she out while we sliding,” he raps on “Aye! (Free the Homies).” That’s the reality. He’s bouncy and boisterous musically but still a lot less slick than, say, YG; he’s always sounded closer to the paranoid introversion in Kendrick, Earl Sweatshirt, and (to name a non-L.A. contemporary) Killer Mike. Staples, the rapper, is a charismatic performer on stage but still the furthest thing from a crowd-pleaser in his songwriting.
A couple of months ago on Twitter, Top Dawg Entertainment president Punch, who oversees Kendrick and SZA, opened a viral discussion about the latest generation of hip-hop superstars. Punch asked, Who are the current superstars in rap, the credible successors to Kendrick, Drake, Nicki Minaj, and J. Cole? The obvious nominees, I thought, were Post Malone, Doja Cat, Lil Nas X, and now Jack Harlow—but implicit in Punch’s question was a nervous qualification about craft. What about the rappers who aren’t arguably singers? The rapper-ass rappers? If hip-hop now has the advantage of being the biggest and most influential musical genre, then why isn’t Vince Staples a superstar? The Wikipedia listing for “Norf Norf” is one proud epitaph: “[The song] did not peak in any major chart. It received widespread acclaim by critics and was placed on several year-end lists.” Was this an unlikely triumph of good taste? Or was this in fact damning evidence of the limits of blog tastemaking? It’s hard to say.
Staples is perpetually straddling such contradictions. He struggles sometimes. There’s the saying, “One for you, one for me;” 2018’s FM! was a little too “for you.” Last year the critic Tom Breihan, reviewing Staples’s self-titled album for Stereogum, found him “calm and controlled and sad” to a fault. He found Staples lurching toward a worrisome cliché: the stoic and uncompromising artiste now making music solely for himself. Vince Staples, the celebrity, is so conventionally expressive; listening to Vince Staples, the rapper, in his purest introversion, really can feel like staring at the dark side of the moon. I recall Breihan taking some flak online for his assessment of Staples, and while I, too, disagreed with some of his pronouncements about the album, I recognized in his frustration my own initial reaction to Summertime ‘06. That’s an album I once respected much more than I enjoyed.
Ramona Park splits the difference between FM! and Vince Staples. It’s a bit less playful than FM!, with its Big Boy skits and its G-funk surges, but still a bit more energized and forthcoming than the self-titled album. Staples says his Vince Staples and Ramona Park, released less than a year apart, were both created around the same time. The latter album sounds a bit more open-hearted in its biggest hooks (“Lemonade”), boldest flows (“Rose Street”), and best beats (“When Sparks Fly”). But, again, these are slight differences in execution; Vince Staples and Ramona Park both bring a degree of warmth to the rapper’s music while (rather unlike FM!) preserving his cold, classic demeanor. Ramona Park isn’t, on its own, the sort of album that will convert a longtime skeptic into a true believer in Staples. His greater discography, however, rewards patience and trust in his self-involved approach. Vince Staples still hasn’t figured things out musically, spiritually, or professionally. That is, of course, why we’re still here.