Vince Staples released his first album, the double-disc Summertime ‘06, just a few days before his 22nd birthday. In theory, that’s supposed to make him feel relatable to someone like me, less than a month out from turning 21. Really though, it does the opposite. From his first verse on the album, on track two, “Lift Me Up”, it’s clear Vince has lived experiences beyond his years. He’s grappling with gangs and violence, balancing his personal success with the needs of his community, and making sense of being a Black American in the mid-2010s. Sometimes he wants to transcend it, like when he sings the chorus:
See, this weight is on my shoulders, pray Jehovah lift me up
And my pain is never over, pills and potions fix me up
I just want to live it up, can a motherfucker breathe?
Life ain't always what it seems, so please just lift me up
Two days out from my 22nd birthday, I imagine I’ll just be hoping I have a postgrad job lined up. I don’t even know if I’ll have experienced enough to make a collection of 20 songs like Vince did on Summertime ‘06.
So when I first heard Summertime ‘06, it took me aback. I had only listened to rap music for about a year, but heavy records like Run the Jewels 2 and To Pimp a Butterfly brought me into the genre, so I was no stranger to blunt social commentary. But something about how Vince put things – so simply, backing up a line about gangs and violence against a line about girls and Sprite – put his whole situation into perspective for me. Listening through the album felt like Vince was driving me through Long Beach, telling me stories as we went down Poppy Street, Artesia Boulevard, Downey Avenue.
That’s a long-winded way of saying that Vince has been at the height of his career since he released his first full-length in 2015, in a way that few rappers have been. And that’s why I’m so shocked that A&O Productions got him for this year’s Ball, at such an intimate and cool venue as Metro. It almost feels like we don’t deserve him.
After Summertime ‘06, Vince didn’t want to do the same thing twice, so he released a jam-packed EP called Prima Donna a year later. As far as content goes, it’s not as heavy, but it sonically pushes Vince’s music in different directions. With new production work from James Blake alongside go-tos DJ Dahi and No I.D., it puts more focus on the denser, more alternative hip-hop sound that lurked in the background of Summertime ‘06. The verses could still carry the record on their own, too – Vince played off the newfound confidence of his acclaimed debut, with no shortage of things to say. (The EP is called Prima Donna, after all.)
Everything Vince did on Summertime ‘06 and Prima Donna culminated on his second full-length, Big Fish Theory, which he released just about two years after Summertime ‘06. The production doesn’t work in the present, but the future – Vince even went so far as to tell the Grammys it deserved to be entered for the electronic album award. Big names like Bon Iver, SOPHIE and Flume join up-and-comers like then-Yale student Zack Sekoff and duos Christian Rich and GTA to create techno-inspired soundscapes on each of the tracks. Throughout the record, big-name features from Juicy J, Damon Albarn, Ray J and Kendrick Lamar aid Vince. The first track, “Crabs in a Bucket,” goes for about a minute before he even starts to rap – setting up the entire album’s perspective. But when he starts to rap, he’s continuing the conversation from Summertime ‘06, and looking a bit more globally. By the end of the record, he’s asking existential questions like “How I’m ‘posed to have a good time when death and destruction’s all I see?” and empowering fans toward Afrofuturism with lines like, “Clap your hands if the police ever profiled / You ain’t gotta worry, don’t be scary ‘cause we on now / Ain’t no gentrifying us, we finna buy the whole town.”
I saw Vince perform cuts off Big Fish Theory last year, co-headlining his tour with California friend Tyler, the Creator, during an all-too-short set at the Aragon Ballroom. Critics often praise his determination, which he exemplified as he drove through 16 songs in 45 minutes; critics also loved to call Big Fish Theory an “avant-garde” project, which the crowd exemplified by not knowing quite what to do as Vince rapped discordant, undanceable verses in front of a wall of flashing lights. The strictly Tyler fans may have been a little confused. I thought it was fantastic, a perfect live translation of the album.
When FM! dropped as a surprise last November, that sealed it for me: Vince Staples is one of the best in the game right now. The album takes the form of a radio special, with guests ranging from current big hitters Ty Dolla $ign and Kehlani to icons E-40 and Jay Rock. It’s the most danceable collection of music from Vince yet – all of the tracks bang, to put it simply. And continuing the work of Summertime ‘06, it’s another ode to his Southern California home. It was the soundtrack of my last month or so in Paris as I walked to classes, restaurants and bars, reminding me of what the U.S. was like.
Vince just came through Chicago last month at the Riviera Theatre with JPEGMAFIA, touring on FM!. Maybe I’m a bit dramatic, but it feels almost against all odds that A&O got him back so soon, and at this moment in his career. I don’t think it’s dramatic, though, to say it’s bound to be one of the best sets in recent campus memory – energetic enough to get the crowd moving, experimental enough to feel like something new, serious enough to keep people thinking after they leave.
Even though I already have a ticket to another show that night (Foxing at Thalia Hall), you can bet I’ll try as hard as I can to see Vince Staples first. In the refrain of “Like It Is,” the last full song on Summertime ‘06, he says, “I gotta be the one / to do it like nobody has ever done.” Amid all the truths Vince reveals when he raps, that’s proven to be the biggest.