Vince Staples is only 22 and has one of the best debut albums of the year — so why does he want to quit?
On a hot Friday in October, Vince Staples sat outside an upscale food court in Anaheim, happily imagining the end of his rap career. The night before, he had performed at a party for a clothing brand. He described the event as “fucking horrible,” but it paid so well that it made Staples think about one of his favorite topics: his exit plan. “You’re out of your goddamn mind if you think I’m going to be doing this music shit for more than two more years,” he said. “And let me really get some money? If I get some in the next six months, you’ll never see me again.”
Staples is 22 and slender, with full eyebrows and a gap between his front teeth. He’s an unassuming figure, prone to slinking down in chairs and averse to jewelry. But he has a low-key charisma, and when he wants, he flashes his dry, arch wit. He looked across the street at a gleaming new residential community called The Domain. “I was going to move in there, but I couldn’t,” he said. “I don’t have any credit. Well, I do, but I don’t have middle-age-person credit. Life sucks.”
In hip-hop, there’s a long history of performers promising they’ll stop making music, from multiplatinum rappers like Too $hort and Jay Z, who vowed to retire after years of success and then reneged, to younger acts like Lupe Fiasco and Waka Flocka Flame, who seem beaten down by the grind. But in Staples, the desire appears more genuine, and his decision more a matter of disgust with what rapping has come to represent. He deplores the industry’s obsession with rivalries and is infuriated that it does so little to communicate ideas to people. “It’s not that I don’t care about rap,” he said. “I’m not a fan of rap culture.”
What’s so jarring about Staples’s eagerness to end his career is that it has only just begun — and that he is so good at what he does. This past June, he released Summertime ’06, his first full album, through Def Jam, hip-hop’s most storied label. The debut is an eerie, melancholic 20-track collection — split over two CDs, for those who still buy their music physically — buzzing with unnerving atmosphere.
It established Staples as one of music’s most compelling new voices, winning an A from the A.V. Club, 4½ mics from The Source, and a Best New Music designation on Pitchfork, which described the album as “breathtakingly focused, a marathon that feels like a sprint.” This year, Staples appeared on the BET Hip Hop Awards, The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, and Jimmy Kimmel Live!, and he landed on everything from rap magazine XXL’s annual Freshman Class list to the Our Favorite New Artists roundup on National Public Radio’s All Songs Considered.
Another acclaimed rap release to come out of Southern California in 2015 is Kendrick Lamar’s ambitious To Pimp a Butterfly. Lamar worked with a group of producers, as well as Los Angeles’s young cosmic jazz community, to create an album that synthesizes more than 50 years of African American music. Its message is one of transcendence — it looks toward a scarred dream of overcoming the horrors of addiction, self-hatred, gang warfare, police harassment, and the government’s negligence toward, if not actual combat against, its own citizens. It’s a message that has resonated outward. At protests, some members of the Black Lives Matter movement have chanted a defiant refrain from one of the album’s singles: “We gon’ be alright!”
Summertime ’06 wrestles with the same traumas as To Pimp a Butterfly, but its perspective, and Staples’s dexterous work as a lyricist, make it a darker listen. On “C.N.B.” he rhymes, “Why they hate us? Why they want to rape us for our culture? They greet us, defeat us, bleed us, then they leave us for the vultures.” Still, his gallows humor sometimes appears, as on the album’s opener, “Lift Me Up,” when he raps, “Uber driver in the cockpit look like Jeffrey Dahmer, but he lookin’ at me crazy when we pull up to the projects.”
The album presents a world dictated by mutual fears — between police and civilians, between rival gangs, between black and white, between rich and poor — and unable or unwilling to move forward. Staples sums up his worldview on the pained “Like It Is” with the lines, “We live for they amusement like they view us from behind the glass. No matter what we grow into, we never gonna escape our past. So in this cage they made for me, exactly where you’ll find me at. Whether it’s my time to leave or not, I’ll never turn my back.” But if Staples’s outlook can seem hopeless, it’s not born from nihilism or rage. It’s just that he’s given up on the idea that the old ways can be fixed.
In early September, I met Staples in a fussy Silver Lake café in Los Angeles. As I sat down, he was in the middle of a discussion with his manager, Corey Smyth, about three mocked-up images featuring paintings of women’s eyes. They seemed to be album covers, but when I asked whether they were for an upcoming project, Staples responded, “Maybe. It might be ten different covers for the album. We might not do an album cover. We might not do an album. You never know.”
In conversation, Staples is prone to enigmatic proclamations like “I don’t need to read about myself; I know myself,” or “What about the rhinos? Let’s talk about them. They’re all dead.” During interviews, he specializes in evasive maneuvers and redirections. Most exchanges bring you to dead ends, unexpected left turns, or entirely different neighborhoods. He also has his own, often seemingly contradictory, logic. He says he’s never done drugs or drunk alcohol, and some consider him politically conscious because of his interest in the country’s growing income inequality. But he says he isn’t interested in voting, and his songs are filled with details of violent crimes.
At the café, Staples was dressed simply, in a black long-sleeve T-shirt with the words
R.I.P. YOUTH on the front. He said it wasn’t any kind of statement; he’s just a fan of The Neighbourhood, the Ventura County rock band whose merchandise it is. Staples lives in an apartment in a city he doesn’t name but does say is not far from Long Beach. From his description, it seems his favorite thing about his building is that everyone leaves him alone. He lives a simple life. “I have no need for any extravagance,” Staples said. “I’m blessed to not have that nature, which is good for this up-and-down business.”
Staples grew up moving around Long Beach, though his family ended up in Compton briefly. The youngest of four children, Staples was, according to his mother, Eloise, a curious and quiet child. “He could really speak to anyone on any level,” she said. “It wasn’t a situation where if you’re talking about politics he can’t talk about that.”
As a kid, Staples spent a lot of time with Eloise’s father, a retired truck driver and construction worker named Andrew Hutchins, who would pick him up after school while she was at her job at a utility company’s billing department. The two became particularly close after Staples’s parents divorced when he was in elementary school. Hutchins died in 2005, and Staples has called it one of the most important moments in his life; on his song “Versace Rap,” he says it was the day “I grew into a man.”
Staples went to Mayfair High School, located in Lakewood, near Long Beach. In his early teens, he became entangled in an incident involving a cellphone that he remains vague about but that played a large part in derailing his academic career. “I was black, going to a good school,” he said. “Someone said I stole something. I didn’t. The kid said I didn’t steal it.” But, according to Staples, “the police said [the other students] were scared to tell them it was me. And that’s the first time I ever really got in trouble.” Recently, he told NPR that he was charged with multiple felonies, including aggravated assault, threatening a witness, and armed robbery. He said it took three years for the case to be resolved. After this incident, Staples briefly moved to Atlanta, but when he came back to California and realized his school credits wouldn’t fully transfer, he dropped out because he wouldn’t graduate on schedule.
Growing up, he didn’t express much interest in rap. The first time he got attention was after a guest appearance on EARL, the 2010 mixtape from Earl Sweatshirt, a then-member of Odd Future, the provocative and disruptive crew of young rappers. Staples had been spending time at the studio that Odd Future’s Syd tha Kyd set up in her parents’ house in South Los Angeles. He’d learned about the space from rapper and producer Dijon SAMO, a friend who also lived near Ramona Park, a neighborhood on Long Beach’s north side.
Syd’s was a gathering place for many aspiring SoCal teen rappers. It was a spot where they could hang out and sometimes sleep if they had nowhere to go. The atmosphere could be competitive — whoever had the worst verse on a song was forced to do push-ups — but it was mostly communal. “We all broke, but we’re all piecing up to get food and pizzas,” said SAMO. “Sometimes we might have to run out of a 7-Eleven with a bunch of SoBes and skate off, but that was shit we were all doing together.”
EARL turned into an internet-fueled sensation, but when Sweatshirt seemingly disappeared — it later turned out that he had been sent away by his mother to attend a program for troubled youth — some of the attention got diverted to Staples. Even though he remains friends with the members of Odd Future, Staples bristled at the idea that his success was dependent on their cosign. “They didn’t change my life. I love them to death; they opened doors, but ...” He trailed off. “Syd couldn’t pay my mom’s rent. She would’ve if she could’ve, but she couldn’t. None of them could. So that didn’t change anything.”
Staples worked on his own mixtape projects, rapping in a disaffected monotone and cultivating a persona as a stone-hearted soldier of the streets. When he was 17, he met Smyth, a veteran manager who had worked with acts including De La Soul and Talib Kweli. Smyth was intrigued by Staples but refused to sign on to manage him until he saw Staples perform live. Even after Staples put on what Smyth described as “a mediocre showcase at best” at the South by Southwest festival in 2012, Smyth believed that the potential was there. “I remember him looking at the crowd and then looking to the side of the stage where I was, like, ‘They just don’t know,’” said Smyth. “I thought it was hilarious that this kid was standing in front of these people and basically shunning them, as if they were the ones who didn’t know that he was dope.” (Smyth said that Staples is now “the closest thing that I have to a little brother.” He’s unruffled by Staples’s comments about leaving rap. “Two years seems like it would be short-lived,” he told me. “But if it’s ten years from now and he’s still fighting some of the same battles, then we didn’t do our job.”)
Staples soon signed to Def Jam on the strength of his mixtape Stolen Youth, which he now describes as “mad trash.” It was three years before he made his debut, and he took that time to develop as a rapper. He abandoned his detached voice and adopted a wounded and indignant yelp. He also became much more personal, turning specific addresses in Ramona Park into landmarks in his lyrics and describing his own family’s struggles. On “Nate,” from the 2014 mixtape Shyne Coldchain Vol. 2, he detailed his father’s descent from drug dealer to drug addict, rapping, “Used to see him stand out in the alley through my window, drinking Hen with homies, blowing cig smoke. Lights flash, now he’s running from the Winslows. Hear him screaming for my mama at the backdoor. Sometimes she wouldn’t open it, sitting on the couch, face emotionless. I don’t think they ever noticed that I noticed it.”
It’s Staples’s talent for observation that makes him stand out as a rapper. His work is filled with vivid descriptions of stashed firearms, revenge against snitches, and teenage abortions, but he’s also able to convey the false bravado, paranoia, and regret that come with those realities. Much of Staples’s material comes from his involvement with the Crips. Gang culture was something he was surrounded by growing up, but the title Summertime ’06 refers to the era when he was about to turn 13, when it came to guide his and his friends’ lives. “That time we was like, ‘We really about to get this Crippin’ goin,’” said Staples. “Then that was it. We didn’t stop. For damn near ten years we was going strong.”
During this period the neighborhood’s gangs, often divided along ethnic lines, were inescapable. This was even true for someone like SAMO, who was focused on making music and skateboarding (and whom Staples credits as one of the first people to bring him toward rapping). Though barely two blocks long, certain parts of Ramona Park were to be avoided, and running into a shootout while heading home wasn’t rare. In recent years, the situation has relaxed. There are posters in the park advertising sign-ups for boys’ football and girls’ volleyball, and 3230 Poppy Street — the house where Staples once stayed and that he often refers to in his rhymes — appears empty, its lawn dying in California’s long drought. Many of the gangs’ key members are in prison, dead, or have decided to change their lives. “A lot of it is about growing up,” said SAMO. “A lot of us were 16, trying to make a name for ourselves and gain a rep, so it kind of made people feel like they had to be a certain way, act out a certain way.”
Staples still thinks fondly of those years and says he doesn’t have any regrets, but he also has many stories about dead bodies in alleys, children who no longer have parents, and people sent away for long prison bids. (This list includes his father, who he says was in and out of prison for parts of his childhood.) “I don’t take nothing back,” Staples said. “I just know that I got lucky.”
It wasn’t until the release of Staples’s EP Hell Can Wait in 2014 that he started to prioritize music. Smyth told me that signing to Def Jam gave Staples the ability to separate himself from the world around Ramona Park. “If we hadn’t done that deal at that point, I don’t know if Vince would be here for this conversation,” he said. Asked if he agreed, Staples replied, “Probably. I live a crazy life, my friend. I’m a very active pillar in my community.” But he can be understandably cagey about specifics. When I pressed Staples on what he meant, he said, “It means a lot of things,” and finished with, “I’m an overseer nowadays, but I was a very active member.”
Several weeks later, while on tour in Colorado, Staples was more explicit. In a cavernous backstage dining area, underneath a photo of the Grateful Dead in 1978, he said, “I’m always going to be associated. I’m never going to say I don’t gangbang. I don’t believe in ‘former gang member,’ all this shit like that. That’s not true. I’m still a gang member, forever, until I die.”
When Staples says this, he is not trying to brag about his street cred; he is just being honest. Similarly, when Staples says that he thinks rap is corny or talks about how he wants out, it comes from frustration, not bluster. Because of his lack of a high school diploma, Staples says he can’t get a good job, or even a job interview, and can’t get into college. He calls rap “my best option.” Still, he sees it as one more system that pits black people against one another, one more culture of negativity, and believes that it’s emblematic of a larger problem. “[Rap] doesn’t progress with the times,” he told me. “I think that’s unfortunate, because rap culture is an extension of black culture, no matter what anybody says. That shows we have to get better.”
When I caught up with Staples outside of Denver, he was the first act of the night on a four-rapper lineup that included A$AP Rocky, Danny Brown, and Tyler, the Creator. He had been on the road for just under two weeks. With all the miles traveled inside the air-conditioned bus and the early-morning hotel-lobby call times, he was losing his voice. His asthma and the high altitude weren’t helping either. As a palliative, he had started drinking a concoction involving ginger and lemon juice recommended to him by a member of Rocky’s crew.
Staples seemed even moodier, even more detached than usual. “I don’t like being on the road,” he said. “Health-wise it’s not good for me, and I have other things I’d rather do. But it’s not about you at this point; you’re doing it for the fans; you’re performing the songs.”
Red Rocks, the night’s venue, seats more than 9,000 people and is encircled by magnificent geological formations. Some music fans consider it the best outdoor venue in the United States, but the space didn’t hold any particular appeal for Staples. He was used to playing clubs, not amphitheaters, and looking out at the 70 steeply terraced rows, he just saw problems. “How niggas gonna jump? How niggas gonna move?” he asked no one in particular.
A few hours later, when Staples got onstage, he shook off his funk. His limbs turned rubbery as he stalked back and forth in a Long Beach varsity jacket. He riled up the young, eager, and predominantly white audience. After performing “Hands Up,” his song about police brutality, he started riffing, telling the crowd, “Fuck the sheriff. Fuck the detectives. Fuck the police. Might as well fuck the judge. Fuck the judge’s mama. Fuck the judge’s mama’s grandma. Fuck the judge’s grandma’s grandson — that’s the judge.”
As Staples’s 25-minute performance rolled on, his deteriorating health caught up with him. He motioned to his road manager for his inhaler, and after concealing it behind his back, he discreetly took a pull. He made it through the bitter set closer “Blue Suede,” leading the crowd in the chorus: “Hope I outlive them red roses.” Once he was out of the audience’s sight, however, he showed a rare moment of vulnerability, dropping his unflappable façade to double over in the darkness and unleash a long, violent coughing attack. Soon he straightened up again — and then quickly disappeared, deeper into backstage.