For the past decade, the Long Beach rapper Vince Staples has been defined by his inscrutability. “Don’t ever put me in a box with you rap bastards / Came from a different struggle,” he rapped on the opener for his début mixtape, “Shyne Coldchain Vol. 1,” from 2011. He shifts his sound from release to release, and his struggle, as a foot soldier in the long-running California gang wars, gets clouded over by deadpan lyrics that make the particulars of his whereabouts difficult to suss out. Most gangsta rappers aren’t exactly forthcoming in that regard, but even among his peers Staples relishes playing it close to the vest. It’s not that he’s hiding—he’s careful.
That guardedness doesn’t extend to the curation of his projects. Since his 2015 début, “Summertime ’06,” Staples has taken greater risks, sonically and conceptually. The Def Jam album, with its clanging, steampunk aesthetics, was unlike anything else that was coming out of the historic hip-hop label, despite its being produced by familiar names such as No I.D., DJ Dahi, and Clams Casino. It was followed by “Big Fish Theory,” in 2017, an even more daring turn, which pulled from house and techno music as it critiqued rap celebrity. He’d ventured so far out that the most unexpected thing was to pivot back, and, in 2018, he channelled the buoyant music of his SoCal roots in “FM!,” a well-disguised critique of terrestrial rap radio and its function. Staples has spent most of his career reëvaluating blood feuds from uncommon angles.
His new, self-titled album, “Vince Staples,” the first in nearly three years, shows the rapper searching for a unified theory of who he is in his music. He has always been eerily calm in the face of violence, with more on his mind than he’s willing to divulge, but on this album he makes the push toward self-recognition. His rapping, though unruffled and unhurried, has been discreet and cautious, even evasive at times—representative of a man who has always felt awkward maneuvering under public scrutiny. It’s a form that has bolstered the persona in his music—someone warily rounding every corner and actively avoiding self-incrimination. In “Vince Staples,” he skulks through old haunts, reminiscing without compromising his covertness. This is as low-key as he has ever been; it is also him at his most unmistakable. That balance between being inconspicuous and being present grants Staples a certain sureness on a quietly macabre album marked by candor and resilience.
Staples has called the album a “clarity moment for the listeners,” emphasizing its arrangement of the long-shared facts that are scattered across his discography. “I’ve heard a lot of my peers saying, ‘We want to know more about you,’ even though these topics are things that I’ve said before on previous projects. But I hadn’t gotten to the point where I had explained it well,” he told Cultured magazine. But “Vince Staples” is less notable for what it reveals in the text than who the rapper is revealed to be in performance. On this album, he fully articulates the characteristics that identify him: his winking wit; his stoic, efficient rap style; his poignant insight into grim gangland realities; his measured comportment; and his honed ear for wondrously eccentric sounds.
“Vince Staples” is the rapper’s second album with the producer Kenny Beats. After serving as one half of the E.D.M. duo Loudpvck, Kenny has become one of the most recognizable beat-makers in hip-hop, often adjusting to suit the needs of his collaborators. He brings a nearly spectral presence to the production here, to complement recurrent images of street intersections turned tombstones. “When it’s quiet out, I hear the sound of those who rest in peace / Tryna drown the violence out, but let ’em say that they want beef / And we riding out,” Staples raps on “Take Me Home.” The beats are haunted backdrops that click faintly around his sobering wordplay. The samples are distorted, sometimes with disembodied vocals that float off when Staples presses into the foreground.
Staples has never shied away from the violent dealings in his history, outlined by a kill-or-be-killed mentality, but this is the first time since his early days that obfuscation or misdirection isn’t at least part of the point. These songs seek elucidation, if not understanding, and he is almost plainspoken in its pursuit. Outside of the album’s expository interludes and outros, many of the characters remain faceless, but they have shape, as placeholders in re-creations of incidents from the rapper’s past. These are reënactments designed to elicit epiphanies from the man replaying them in his mind’s eye. The who and the where matter far less than the what itself, spurring acuity and urgency from Staples as the narrator. “We was them kids that played / All in the street, following leads / of niggas who lost they ways,” he raps, in singsong, on “Are You with That?” “Some of them outside still / Some of them inside graves.”
Despite everything, Staples is a master at maintaining space from the public. His verses are artful in their configurations—simple yet pithy, as if explaining away previous indirectness with selective veracity. The details are subtle in constructing the self-portrait of a man whose brow keeps furrowing, even as he puts distance between himself and his turbulent path by accruing fame and money—an outcome that he still can’t entirely reconcile with. The scar tissue is too deep. Not even material comfort is presented as a refuge from sleepless nights battling P.T.S.D. The glimpses inside his circumstances can be both heartbreaking and unimaginable: his stomach growling after a series of evictions (one by the state, one by an aunt); having to tuck a gun into his trunks at the beach to stave off summer crime; being too paranoid to shake hands with fans because of friends lost in the open. In time, the reasons for Staples’s wary disposition become clear. This suspicion is revealed to be the basis of his defensive outlook. To understand Vince Staples, this album seems to suggest, is to realize that there is a part of him that will always be unknowable, to grasp that surviving the terrors of gang warfare comes with an internalized cynicism nearly impossible to shake.