Favorite Tracks: “ARE YOU WITH THAT?,” “LAW OF AVERAGES,” “SUNDOWN TOWN,” “TAKE ME HOME,” “MHM”
A key aspect of reviewing music I find myself returning to is that the expectations an artist sets for a project play an important role in how I hear the product. To promote his latest effort, Vince Staples touted the self-titled release as, “The clearest expression yet of who he is,” a concerted attempt to give listeners more of himself. At a scant 22 minutes, it’s hard at first blush to feel like VINCE STAPLES fulfills that promise. However, that same short runtime allows for repeat listens, which won me over with the confessional impact of Staples’ writing. VINCE STAPLES is a rare album, confidently presented, unambiguously downbeat, and, yes, the clearest expression of the man we’ve yet experienced.
As a person and artist, Staples has a talent for observation. People often express surprise at his wit in interviews and on Twitter, where his razor sharp tongue and lethal comebacks suggest a completely different persona than the dead-eyed, resigned one that often shows up in his music. But those personas reside on two sides of the same coin, where Staples is able to digest and report on what he sees with precision and clarity. He’s made it clear in the run-up to VINCE STAPLES that he’s as secure and content as he’s ever been in life, telling NPR, “Freedom and peace of mind give you the ability to create with intention, and intention is what touches people.” That peace of mind is decidedly not reflected in the music, where themes of distrust, paranoia and weariness pervade.
If Staples is writing from a place of creative freedom, it has sparked an adherence to concision, like peer and friend Earl Sweatshirt. Unlike Sweatshirt, whose raps traffic in tangled abstractions, Staples is direct and blunt, though no less artful and impactful in his presentation. Earl may take an entire verse or song to make a point Vince can make in a bar or two. On the opener, “ARE YOU WITH THAT?,” Staples delivers a heart-wrenching note on role models in his community, rapping, “All in the streets, following leads, of n****s who lost they way / Some of them outside still, some of them inside graves.” On the James Blake-esque follow-up (and album highlight) “LAW OF AVERAGES,” he counts his hard-won money at home alone, lamenting “Don’t want no friends with open hand / Everyone that I ever known, asked me for a loan.” With these details, you can see the drawn curtains and hear the weariness in Staples’ voice as he takes boilerplate “price of fame” material and makes it visceral and affecting where other artists may only evoke disdain.
It’s a further testament to how ironclad Staples’ grip on this album is that I’ve yet to mention Kenny Beats, who operates with a completely different sonic palette compared to the reverent G-funk bounce he brought to Staples’ last album, 2018’s excellent FM!. One of Staples’ most admirable qualities is his drive to rap over varied production. In Kenny, he’s found the perfect foil, bolstering his resume as a rap therapist of sorts by providing exactly what the artist needs to get the best performance. Kenny meets Vince where he is with downtempo, ethereal arrangements that help the slight material land with maximum effect. His willingness to provide restrained but dynamic background texture for Staples’ imagery is commendable, even ditching the iconic “Woah, Kenny!” tag, an inclusion he once playfully dogged him for on an episode of The Cave.
VINCE STAPLES is a brief, melancholy album that actively insists against its creator’s own popularity. Vince Staples will never be found making “song of the summer” music, despite the sunny digs he calls home, and the unrelenting bleakness and lack of standout moments may turn some listeners away. What those who stay will find is an arresting grayscale depiction of that home, and the impressions growing up there left on a singularly talented and observant young rapper.