Album Review | The Inward, Uncompromising Vince Staples

The opening track of Vince Staples’ self-titled album may be his defining masterwork. The bouncy and devastating ‘ARE YOU WITH THAT?’ seems to exemplify everything he’s been about his whole career, brought to new melodic heights. Vince’s unique approach to trap music has always kept him out of mainstream rotation. He reminisces on his own gang activity with a depressed calm—he’s not handwringing or apologetic, but rather quietly dejected by the futility of it all. He recalls his childhood friends with a chilling diptych:

“Some of them outside still / Some of them inside graves.”

The catchy, simplistic lyrics are part of the song’s appeal, as is the bouncy upbeat instrumental from Kenny Beats, who produces the whole project. The song seems constantly treading between a proud street anthem and an open wake. This is what Vince has always been about, his slow drawl lending pathos to even his most indulgent bangers. All his songs seem to play with the relationship between street violence/social unrest and rap music as a commodity. He prompts the listener to reflect on their own enjoyment (indeed, the title ‘ARE YOU WITH THAT?’ can have multiple meanings here) as part of a dialectic of pain and pleasure.

The same dialectic is doubtlessly engaged with within Vince himself as he writes these songs. His street memories are both glamourous and tragic, each one is tinged in the residue of the other. That complex relationship with his subject matter is what makes the music interesting—it’s also what makes it non-competitive commercially.

Vince’s career has been dogged by commercial disappointments. He is no dud, just a mid-sized artist in an industry apparatus that has no clue what to do with mid-sized artists. Years of mid-to-high billing at music festivals, endorsement deals and soundtrack placements show he has a sizable and dedicated fanbase. However, since 2017’s Big Fish Theory underperformed, Vince has been ruthlessly mismanaged by those around him. Following the enjoyably breezy 2018 EP FM!, Vince has been marked by interminable album rollouts led by Paul Rosenberg of Def Jam, which fizzled out leaving fans with no album, seemingly because the singles were underperforming.

The mistaken idea that there is a golden formula to catapult Vince to the heights of Kendrick Lamar and Drake has caused his music to stagnate and lose its bite. The unrelenting coldness of Summertime ’06 (2015) has been absent from his work as long as he’s chased stardom. Vince is no longer signed to Def Jam, and his freedom is reflected on this new release.

On the glitzy and beautiful ‘THE SHINING’, he admits he doesn’t “make music for the masses” and decides to let his dark emotions pool deeper into his music, despite the catchy hooks, melodic flows and shallow, immediate production. The distinction is subtle, but on this new album Vince seems at peace with not being the kind of artist that dominates radio stations. He is relieved from the insecurity that cast a shadow over even his best output of the last few years. He can be as raw, vulnerable and confrontational as he wants. This is Vince without inhibitions or second guesses—what else would one expect from a self-titled record?

This uncompromised Vince is far from an unlistenable, experimental artist. These songs are catchy and memorable as Vince has always been. ‘SUNDOWN TOWN’ is another highlight, with a bright summery beat that is cast in a striking light by the paranoid verses “When I see my fans / I’m too paranoid to shake their hands … Don’t know if you foe or if you fam.” Such a clear improvement is this over his last few projects and the closest thing to come to his masterful ’06, that it throws the whole notion of commercial viability as a motive for art into question. This new project is only more accessible, more immediate and more compelling than something like FM!. In refusing to readjust for the radio, nothing was lost.

The production from Kenny Beats, who also helmed FM!, is serviceable—let’s just say Vince is never at risk of losing the spotlight. His delivery does a lot to elevate the more tepid instrumentals like ‘MHM’—it feels refreshing to hear an artist with such clarity and perspective on these kinds of beats.

The project is short—at twenty-two minutes and only ten songs, two of them spoken interludes. One feels like Vince Staples could have done more, but the helping he offers is well worth the listen and bodes well for his future output. Let’s hope he continues to look inward and ignore the suits.

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