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Vince Staples: Calm In the Hour of Chaos

It’s a Friday night in late June and I’m at a barbecue restaurant in Los Angeles with Vince Staples, who’s trying to help me retain my s**t, since I’m losing it. My dog has just bitten my girlfriend, and this is one of those nightmare situations for somebody in a relationship: torn between work (i.e., […]

It’s a Friday night in late June and I'm at a barbecue restaurant in Los Angeles with Vince Staples, who's trying to help me retain my s**t, since I’m losing it. My dog has just bitten my girlfriend, and this is one of those nightmare situations for somebody in a relationship: torn between work (i.e., conducting an interview with Vince Staples) and your significant other (who is bleeding, and also mad).

I keep getting up from the table to call my girlfriend, who is, understandably, pissed at the dog for biting her, and pissed at me for not being with her. Staples, who is in person as genial as he is pragmatic and frank on record, offers to reschedule. He gets it. “Dogs try you, bro,” Staples offers. “Maybe your dog had a bad day."

Vince Staples is into cause and effect like that.

To defuse the situation, he tells me a story about his own dog from his childhood. “We had a dog named Yankee Brown,” he says. “One time my brother hopped the gate, then the dog bit him in the ass and just walked away. I think the dog was mad because he woke him up.”

It’s tempting to read too deep into this story, twist it into some hackneyed metaphor for how Staples sees no such thing as absolute good or absolute bad in the world. And from what I can tell, both from music and in conversation, he definitely does sort of believe those things. But he’s not trying to make a greater statement about the world here, he’s just trying to help me out. (Both the dog and my girlfriend are fine, by the way.)

Spend any time with Vince Staples — the Long Beach rapper whose Def Jam double album, Summertime ‘06, was released on June 30 — and you can’t help but notice that the 21-year-old personifies the word “restless.” As he sits in the booth, wearing a black Circle Jerks T-shirt tucked into a tight black pair of jeans, his body is a repository of small, inconsequential motions that add up to a flurry of activity. He rocks back and forth in his seat like a human metronome. His eyes never quite seem to stay focused on the same thing for too long. He claims to not like talking about himself, but he loves talking: about life, about his girlfriend’s little cousins, about the goofy minutiae that surround rap life, whatever.

When it’s time to order our food, Staples orders like a quarterback calling a play. “We’re going chicken sandwich, cole slaw on the side, right?” he begins. “And I want the mac and cheese served as the side. Okay and also, we need two smoked beef links. Is there a type of bread we can get to go along with that? Let’s get a sandwich roll on the side. What is buttermilk pie? We’ll talk about that in a minute. It sounds live.”

More than anything, Staples is one of those people who has a theory about everything. “None of this stuff exists when you’re born,” Staples says, gesturing out the window to the street. “Someone told you everything you know. You live your whole life wiping your ass after you s**t. What if someone came up to you and said, ‘Don’t wipe your ass! It’s not good for you!’ You know how crazy you’d look at that person? If you tell my great-grandmother a hamburger is anything other than a quarter, she’ll say you’re out of your f**kin’ mind.” He’s that kind of arguer, somebody who’s never quite content with accepting things at face value. As Remy Banks, of Queens’ World’s Fair crew who recently toured with Staples, puts it, “You can ask him a question, he’ll answer it, then ask you something that makes you recalibrate your whole f**kin’ thought process.”

“A lot of things are purposely done that might hurt my career, but I don’t care.” — Vince Staples

It’s clear that Vince Staples has a unique perspective on the world. “It’s not necessarily a good one,” he jokes, “but it’s very specific.” He’s only 21, but to borrow a phrase from Mobb Deep’s Prodigy, his mind is old. He’s from Long Beach and reps the West Coast, but he’s not the universe’s biggest Los Angeles fan. “I hate it out here,” he says, referring to L.A. proper. “There’s no parks, no children. People act different. There’s not a lot of reality.” (These days, he lives in Orange County with his girlfriend, who he says he’s been on and off with since middle school.) He doesn’t want to be famous, but he’s signed to a major label (Def Jam), has made tracks with such certified hip-hop legends as Common (“Kingdom,” off of Com’s criminally underrated 2014 record Nobody’s Smiling) and No I.D., the one-time mentor of Kanye West who crafted the majority of the beats on Summertime ‘06. “Separation,” Staples says, “is very important to me. I don’t strive to be a celebrity. My music has nothing to do with me at the end of the day. Once it’s made and it’s purchased, it belongs to whoever.”

He doesn’t even tell his girlfriend’s young cousin he raps; he tells her he works at the post office. Much to his chagrin, he says, she doesn’t believe him, but still.

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The Long Beach of Vince Staples’ music (and his life) is more complex than can be rendered in a single song. “It’s a diverse place,” he says. “The hood kids can be skateboarding, can be white, black, whatever. You’re either ghetto or you’re not.” Growing up, he had friends from pretty much every background you can think of, which led to him being exposed to a variety of music: hip-hop, hardcore, Joy Division, and local favorites Sublime. “I even had a System of a Down phase,” he says. The uniting factor among Staples and his friends was, often, poverty. He says, “A lot of people didn’t have the best parents.” He corrects himself. “Or their parents didn’t have the best assets to help them become the best they could be as parents.”

I ask if he feels like this is a systemic issue in America. He says, “Oh yeah it is, but no one cares. If they do, they have to fix it. When your room’s dirty, if you just ignore it you’ll never clean the motherf**ker. Once you acknowledge, ‘Alright, it’s f**ked up in here,’ then you have to start makin’ moves. They don’t wanna clean the mess.”

Statements like these encapsulate Staples’ best quality as a rapper — his ability to render complex sentiments in plainspoken language — and they pepper Summertime ‘06, one of the best albums of the year. If you’re looking for an elevator pitch, well, here it is: Vince Staples can f**king rap. Summertime ‘06 contains no big-name features to draw you in, no feel-good summer smashes designed in some Swedish laboratory to distract you from the crushing ennui of your ho-hum existence. That is not the point of Summertime ‘06. The point of Summertime ‘06 is words, specifically the ones that tumble out of Staples’ mouth, so tightly written and wound together that everything he says stays with you long after the final track, “06,” is cut off mid-rhyme. “You never know which words are going to attract attention,” Staples says. The implication, of course, is that the ones you choose for your album better count.

The record is billed as a “double album,” but clocking in at a hair under an hour, it’s still shorter than most mainstream hip-hop albums, which tend to use up every nanosecond of a CD’s potential 80 minutes. It’s not a sunny record, not one that some group of horrible frat bros are likely to blast while playing beer pong and spitting Skoal into plastic cups. Instead, its many successes are contingent upon the listener hanging on Staples’ every word. That’s not to say it’s not fun or lacking hooks; far from it. While we talk, he’s continually going on tangents where he mentions how much he admires Rihanna’s music and the fact that Tyga, that hapless punchline of a rapper, “has hits,” as he says. It’s just that Vince Staples doesn’t really give a s**t about making pop music. He studies its rules, then subverts them, creating music that nods to hip-hop’s center while remaining firmly to the left.

“Señorita,” Summertime ‘06’s debut single, is emblematic of this. The Christian Rich-produced track samples Future’s tight, rattling vocals on “Covered N Money” (off of 2014’s Honest), its martial beat resembling something that could be slotted on radio playlists along with, well, Rihanna and Tyga. Staples torpedoes any chance of that, however, when the first words he raps are, “F**k your dead homies.” It was a carefully thought-out move, he says. “A lot of things,” he says, “are purposely done that might hurt my career, but I don’t care.”

Recently, Vince’s tendency to overly theorize caused him to go viral in the unlikeliest of ways, when a segment of an interview he gave to Hot 97’s Peter Rosenberg — in which he made a case for the greatness of Ray J — spread like wildfire.

“Does Ray J not have hits?” Staples asks Rosenberg in the clip, as friend Tyler, the Creator eggs him on. “Ray J was the first Blood on-record, certified. Without Ray J there is no Game. You like Kanye West’s music, don’t you? You like Moesha, don’t you? You like VH1, don’t you? Ray J has had a hand in everything that has occurred in black culture. Remember when Fabolous was real hot? But remember when he did that s**t to Ray J?” He concluded, “Everything we love is directly related to Ray J. Period.”

People constantly misconstrue what he says in interviews, he tells me. “People from New York hit me up every day defending Fabolous,” he says. “If me, Tyler, the Creator, and Peter Rosenberg are in the same room and you took something serious, shame on you. You’re a bad judge of character, and you’re not even a good person,” he says, adding each bit of hyperbole to the statement with comic flourish.

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Staples wasn’t always the paragon of depth, balance, and levity that he is today. You may recall his appearance on Earl Sweatshirt’s “epaR” back when Earl was little more than a word-drunk 16-year-old with an Internet connection and a proclivity for committing on-wax mayhem. Staples matched him bar for bar in a lyrical race to the bottom, detailing a murder that sounds like a particularly grisly Law and Order: SVU plot. That track was recorded in his wild teenage years, when Staples was more concerned with what West Coast underground legend Murs calls “gangbanger craziness” in a phone interview.

Murs has booked Staples for shows, shared a bill with him at last year’s Odd Future Carnival, and generally acts as a spirit guide for younger rappers. “The stories I’d heard before I met him were INSANE,” he says. “Everyone was like ‘Oh my God, this kid’s a f**kin' idiot when it comes to guns and beating people up. When I met him, he was like, ‘I’m working so hard to leave that behind.’”

Staples laughs when I relay Murs’ words to him, saying, “Man, everybody thought I was gonna kill ‘em! I was on my crazy s**t for a very long time. I used to be scared of everything, used to have a really bad weapon habit.”

"The place where you’re from defines who you are." — Vince Staples

Sure enough, Staples set himself straight. Murs says, “I went from hearing these legendary stories to hearing nothing at all. It’s rare to see someone make that transition. For someone that had a knack for the streets to put it down so abruptly and with finality is beyond admirable.”

“It’s all situational, man,” Staples says. “The place where you’re from defines who you are. You put yourself in the wrong situation, the wrong things happen. I had to learn it’s not a problem everywhere you go.” He jokes, “I’m a born-again Vincent.”

To hear him tell it, it was actually rap that helped him grow up and get out of the streets. After garnering some buzz from his early tracks with Sweatshirt, he followed with a string of mixtapes: Shyne Coldchain, Vol. 1, the minor abstract-rap classic Winter In Prague with producer Michael Uzowuru, and Stolen Youth, a collaborative tape with Mac Miller. He found a fan in No I.D., who produced the lion’s share of the second Coldchain installment and helped facilitate Staples’ deal with Def Jam. This led to the Hell Can Wait EP which, if you ask me, is 5/7 perfect. Before his deal, he says, “I didn’t have anywhere to live. My mother was living with someone else. Certain people’s parents own homes and cars. My family has nothing.” Signing with Def Jam, a major, allowed him to receive an advance hefty enough to give him what he calls, “A head start.”

Still, Staples doesn’t really give too much of a f**k about money. “I didn’t take a big advance,” he says. “The happiest people, the ones you like the most, they’re never worried about being rich.” Staples is candid about the nature of being a professional musician as well. “We don’t make a lot of money. You get a $50,000 check, then two $20,000 checks. After you pay your taxes, you’re basically a teacher.”

As such, Staples is looking to branch out from rap, and fast. He has a minor acting role in the film Dope (executive produced by Pharrell), whose reception at Sundance spurred a bidding war among potential distributors. According to his manager, the producers loved Staples so much in the film that they tried to expand his character, which he gladly would have done if he hadn’t been already booked to go on tour with the traditionalist Brooklyn rapper Joey Bada$$.

I ask him if he’s interested in acting again. “Hell yeah, man!” he says. “You get paid more to act! Look at Ludacris, I’ve seen his car. And Tyrese — he’s way above Ludacris on his acting s**t. He still spending Waist Deep money.”

As we leave the restaurant to head over to a nearby streetwear store to take the photos for this piece (Vince has a radio promo event there later), Staples seems in high spirits. He’s joking around, marvelling at someone from Def Jam who pulls alongside us in a lime-green Ford Mustang. When SPIN’s photographer whips her camera out, however, Staples is all business. His warm face turns grim, his eyebrow slightly cocked as his eyes bore a hole into the camera. For the first time since I’ve met him, Vince Staples is completely still.

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Staples might be a light-hearted guy in person, but when it comes to his music and his message, he’s dead serious. Still, the gravity of his music and levity of how he acts seem to come from the same place: the inherent absurdity of the world around us. This is perhaps best illustrated by something he said to me earlier in the evening, when he talked about why he began “Señorita” by rapping, “F**k your dead homies.” He told me, “People say it doesn’t make sense. I say, ‘Exactly. It. Does. Not. Make. Sense.' That’s the f**kin’ point. No one understands that that’s the point.”

America’s the cause. Vince Staples is the effect.