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Vince Staples, the visible man

 Vince Staples' latest album, <em>Dark Times</em>, represents a new direction in an already singular major-label rap career.
Shaniqwa Jarvis
Courtesy of the artist
Vince Staples' latest album, Dark Times, represents a new direction in an already singular major-label rap career.

There is an early episode of The Vince Staples Show, the titular rapper’s Netflix tragicomedy about a fictional version of himself, that puts the dual nature of his fame in stark terms. The onscreen Vince applies for a small business loan at a high-class bank, and is effectively laughed out of the room after disclosing his day job. “Entertainment is a profession that we here consider to be less than ideal,” the loan officer chides. “In order for you to get paid, the people have to be entertained. … They have to get lit. But one day, eventually, they stop getting lit.” Vince makes an offer, putting up his advances for 15 contracted albums at $500K a piece, but the bank worker holds that they simply operate in different leagues: His regular clients own private islands, commission luxury doomsday bunkers, design digital consciousnesses for the afterlife. Moments later, as Vince is making his way through the lobby to leave, an armed crew bursts in to hold the place up — and Vince recognizes the lead robber as an old friend, who has a far different perspective on his success. “You the man forreal,” the stick-up man gushes. “Y’all know who the f*** this is?” he asks the rich hostages, fumbling through a rendition of the Staples song “Magic,” to confused gazes. Annoyed, he sniffs, “These muthaf****s ain’t got no taste. Culture yourselves.”

Offscreen, the real Vince Staples has spent years navigating variations of this same intersection, as a cult figure of limited reach but outsized admiration. In art-rap circles, he has steadily grown into an if-you-know-you-know sensation; in the broader entertainment industry, he is acknowledged as one of the best interviews in the biz, the funny guy who is rarely joking. But his personality-forward approach has often been clandestine when it comes to his own life — a side effect, maybe, of his Long Beach Crip background, a world where saying too much can get you jammed up. So it’s been a jolt to see him take more transparent star turns in recent years, with the Netflix series as a prime example: The show is full of interactions that examine proximity to fame, and the way fame changes one’s proximity to everything else. During a family reunion episode, two uncles offer competing advice for what to do with his wealth. “Bring the Black Wall Street right here to the Beach,” the first one exhorts. “After you take care of you,” the other chimes in. “You got to come first.” That sentiment — adjusting to prosperity without losing sight of community — echoes throughout Dark Times, Staples’ new album and his last for Def Jam Recordings. “All I wantеd was a couple mil / Make the city proud / Put it on ‘forе them crackers come and tear it down,” he raps on “Étouffée,” trying out loud to make sense of his visibility.

Staples has had the kind of major label career that isn’t supposed to be possible anymore. In 10 years, he has released eight projects — six on Def Jam, two on Motown — none of which have charted higher than No. 16 on the Billboard 200. He’s never had a single even touch the Hot 100, as a soloist or guest. These are the kind of metrics that drive label people insane, especially considering the magnetic disposition of the man behind the goods. And yet, those listening closely will tell you he has put together one of the most compelling and ambitious rap catalogs of the 21st century. Given how much the camera loves him, it’s perhaps unsurprising that his public commentary has more reach than his off-kilter, ever-evolving musical output. He is an anti-DJ Khaled: His personality precedes his music, but not like a snake oil salesman talking up a shoddy product — it’s more like a mob front, the public-facing business simply obscuring the nature of the dealings going on inside. His recent albums have been similarly firewalled, open about Vince Staples the artist but mum about Vince Staples the man. Dark Times seems to want, at long last, to draw these worlds closer together. It is deeply considered in its approach, thinking hard about a community product’s obligation to community preservation.

Giving back also means giving in to some long-standing questions about his accessibility. Survivor’s guilt and responsibility factor heavily into these songs, as do the people to whom he feels accountable. As a result, the raps are performed with a mumble-mouthed reluctance and a matter-of-fact acceptance, producing some of his most bittersweet music. You can hear the waver in his voice in the uneasy second verse of “Government Cheese,” where he can’t bring himself to tell a friend doing life in Pelican Bay about all the darkness beneath the surface of a modest celebrity existence: “See, it’s hard to sleep when you the only one livin’ the dream / Hard to leave n****s hangin’ when you the money tree.” Across the album, through bluesy beats with the uncanny aura of a ghost town, he ponders loyalty and betrayal, ownership and debt, the brother he buried, the sister who put him on to wider swaths of hip-hop, the mother who kept him clean and found a way, and the hard lessons still giving him PTSD.

It is in tracing the outline of these relationships that we end up with “Étouffée,” an unlikely lore dump for the standoffish rapper, and one of his best songs ever. After providing insight into his journey through minor status at a major, weathering fickle audience expectations (“Label tryna give me feedback, told me ‘Bring the streets back’ / Fans said they want 2015 Vince / Dropped Big Fish, cuh been weak since”), he reveals that his granny left Louisiana to escape the reach of the Jim Crow South, referencing NOLA luminaries Big Tymers, B.G. and Soulja Slim to underscore the lineage. The song feels like a shorthand for many things: the Vince Staples origin story, the source of his hardscrabble demeanor and just how long his bloodline has been seeking this payout. Somehow he does it all with his signature terseness intact.

Economy has been a key to the Staples method for quite some time now — consider the efficient movements of Big Fish Theory, with its sharp clubland directness, or the antsy bursts of FM!, which mimicked the shifts of terrestrial radio — and here his verses are the slipperiest they’ve ever been, tumbling yet tight and fuel-efficient, performing the slick cynicism of a watchful outsider who knows the game well. “No one’s coming to me from a fan standpoint looking for a single, or looking for a party record,” he told Zane Lowe at Apple Music. “But I do know that the people who listen to my music are probably looking for thoughtfulness and creativity.” Even if he doesn’t have it in him to push too close to the center, his recent albums have tried to bring that thoughtfulness to more single-oriented songs. On a track called “ ‘Radio’, ” he pines for a kind of music he doesn’t make: “KDAY would play the records that my sister would say was realer than whatever I listened to / When I got older, I realized it was true.” And though they don’t exactly sound fit for airplay, cuts like “Black&Blue” and “Nothing Matters” do feel like some of his most user-friendly. As he moves more into view in these songs, he also brings to them the streamlined nature of binge TV — semi-episodic stories teasing out much larger arcs across the whole.

Among the greatest feats of Dark Times is that it translates the surreal sense of humor that The Vince Staples Show embodies. Despite his charms, you’d rarely think to call his songs funny, but there are moments across this record that bend the absurd in that direction like a Nathan Fielder bit — and because he is a better rapper than actor, the setups and payoffs are punchier. Take “Justin,” a boozy-sounding parable that finds Staples chatting up a woman who has recognized him at a bar. The song unspools as a late-night meet-cute until, back at her place, another man appears at the door. Gangsta rap history is full of hookups turned setups, and just as it seems things are headed toward some kind of gangland ambush, the woman instead blurts a panicked cover story to her boyfriend: “Baby, meet my little cousin Justin.” The climax is even funnier juxtaposed with the previous track, “Liars,” which excerpts James Baldwin and Nikki Giovanni in conversation about honesty. There is irreverence in the margins here, too, as Staples nudges hangers-on out of the way so he can keep his eye on the prize. “We platonic but sex is what she wanted / Sorry, I can't move my two o’clock,” he shrugs on “Little Homies.” On “Children’s Song,” he establishes a new social baseline: “ ‘Ay, bro, 'member back when?’ / Let it go, loc, I’m way too rich to be your friend,” he replies, building to the hook, “Don’t play with my Crippin’, just play with your kids, b****.”

Spanning the ridiculous and the real, and how ridiculous the real can get, has always been a pillar of the Vince Staples interview experience. Dark Times finally brings that panoramic social intelligence and sixth sense for nonsense to his music. On the closer, “Freeman,” he does not need to leverage his label advance to move forward, putting distance between the Vince of his series and the Vince of his songs: “An undisclosed amount from Netflix, invest it / I turned the set into a movie set for all of the kids / To see who you can be if you believe you’re bigger than this / Don’t be no crab in the bucket, be a Crip at the Ritz,” he deadpans with deadly seriousness, intimating that paying it forward is the soundest possible investment. Later, he has an exchange with a woman on the street who has been following his career and wishes for a Grammy in his future, and his response is so cryptic that she needs him to explain further. Through zigzagging, Zen-like flows, he spells out a deterministic philosophy on monument chasing, thanking her for the support but insisting his focus is elsewhere: “Tryna figure out the ins and outs of where we from / Heal the blocks that we spun / The concrete cracked / Heavy steppin’, n****s want get back. Right?”

That “Right?” is a rare occurrence in his career, a moment of admitted uncertainty. The line is not the first time on the album he invokes the Tupac Shakur poem "The Rose that Grew from Concrete," a nod to his own trajectory flourishing in adverse conditions. At the end of Dark Times, he appears to wonder if such a healing is really possible, his underlying skepticism creeping back to the surface. After all, a cult hero in the streets can find his influence has limits in the wider world beyond. But the ending of the song, in which Staples repeats, “It’s all good,” seems to affirm that in the short term, cult status is enough.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Sheldon Pearce
[Copyright 2024 NPR]