Spotlight #4: Vince Staples

by Will Cafferky

Vince Staples hasn’t got time for your shit. Or, perhaps more accurately, he doesn’t care about it regardless of how much time he’s got. Since hip-hop’s explosion in the 80s/90s, the debris of what began as a fierce and formidable movement can be found strewn across a broad spectrum of genres. The aggression and power of golden era hip-hop is something that many, Staples included, believe has faded and become little more than a novelty.

What arguably made hip-hop equally spectacular and disturbing was that it was so heavily entrenched in truth. Contemporary rap-culture is often so prevalently portrayed as a utopic land of sex and excess; a weak façade for those living with the systemic disadvantage that still prevails in America.

Staples, who grew up in Compton, has lamented the sterilisation of urban music. In an interview with Pitchfork last year, he explained:

Rappers are making this shit a petting zoo. They’re like, “It’s cool, you can walk up, we’re not threatening, we’re just musicians, it’s all an act.” But it’s actually a very real thing. It’s not a game.

He claims rappers have lost sight of their identity, and the people who’ve forged it, instead being caught up in external perceptions, rapping about a constructed fantasy, rather than their own experience. It’s hard to disagree; he’s intelligent, convincing and crucially, a disarmingly honest guy.

Much of his approach to the industry possibly stems from his attitude towards his own music. Whilst others claim rap to be their life, a way of escaping, for Staples it’s a form of communication. As he says, rather pointedly, in his interview: “I record when I have something to say.” This connection to his music is vital. It’s not a queasy, American Idol-esque aspirational connection. Quite the opposite. This isn’t the fulfillment of a dream; it’s the portrayal of an uncomfortable reality.

It’s unsurprising then, that his music is often just that – this isn’t easy listening. Here’s a man who has seen his friends killed, who was kicked out of his home, who lives with prejudice and inequality on a daily basis – why should you be comfortable?

If you’re looking for a perfect example, look no further than Hands Up. It’s as frank a depiction of the social injustice making headlines across America as you’re likely to find. In Feelin’ The Love, Staples tackles his own aspirations and roots, whilst Limos is heavy with love and rejection. It all sways knowingly between reality and philosophy; it’s a commentary, but vitally it’s also a story. Each of these tracks shares the story of the life of a real young man, deeply affected by his surroundings. These tracks all formed the basis for his first EP, Hell Can Wait, released early last year which, suffice to say, shows incredible promise.

Vince Staples is refreshingly familiar. He’s a vital and serious departure from rappers within the scene who have, at times, bordered on self-parody. For those lamenting the fading ghost of golden era, he provides a stark reminder that hip-hop’s heart is well and truly beating. There’s a lifeblood running through Staples’ music and, as long as he’s still got something to say, I’ll certainly be listening.