Review | Vince Staples gives Kendrick a run for his money on the stark ‘Summertime ’06’

Vince StaplesSummertime 06

Summertime ’06

[Def Jam]

In an interview with Pitchfork last year, Vince Staples claimed that in music, especially ‘urban music’, “We’re all in the zoo, and the listeners are the people outside of the cage”.  It’s fitting then, that on his stellar, double disc debut Summertime ’06 the rapper paints the working class world of Long Beach, California as a near hopeless dystopia where drugs are currency and its inhabitants are trapped with little chance of escape. The women that populate this world will either sell you out or – if they’re the good ones – break your heart. Gangbangers will only increase their chances of seeing an early grave and paranoia is a mainstay for all as death seems to stalk at every corner. Staples is one of the ones who’s supposed to have ‘gotten out’ but, unlike his rapping contemporaries, you wouldn’t know it.

Don’t be fooled by a title which evokes nostalgic longing for those endless, heady summer days off school: this is a grim work, but also gloriously so. At 13, an age when the only thing boys should be worrying about is why they suddenly find Kelly from Saved By The Bell so watchable; Vince was already well acquainted with gang life. Supplied with a handgun, he was drug running and carrying out robberies by 15.  Now just 21, it’s understandable why this all still informs his music so much.

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On second track ‘Lift Me Up’, Staples expresses a desire to ascend from this hellish ghetto. On the penultimate ‘Like It Is’, he goes full circle as he revisits the theme again. It’s everything that comes between that makes us understand the sentiment.  In that space, Vince shows the pains of failed summer flings (‘Summertime’), drug-addled psychosis ‘Jump Off The Roof”) and the survivor’s guilt he now endures (‘C.N.B’). Song after song, the listener is consistently reminded of the daily struggle it is to not only survive, but also just to get by.


On ‘Get Paid’, he recounts the everyday pressures he felt to make ends meet by any means necessary.  Over some slickly, sinister groovy beats, Staples snarls that’s he’s on the “block all night ’til the sun come up” and “can sleep when’s he’s done” as he presents the ghetto as self-sustaining economy with no way out. On the streets, women are prostitutes. Men rob from other men, the spoils frivolously spent on their women. Money is paramount, but it’s never enough and usually offers only a fleeting rest bite.

It would be easy just to say that Staples is simply championing that classic West Coast sound but he also offers something radically different, while somehow still managing to stay in those traditional confines. The production has the hall marks of his predecessors (drum and bass loops, straightforward structure) but he also, perhaps unsurprisingly, gives things a much darker feel while keeping it stripped back to an inch of its life. For the most part, he adopts a minimalist approach allowing his evocative yarn-spinning to come to the forefront while producers like NO I-D manage to turn the sparse clutter into a tight, coherent whole.   

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Of all the songs on the album, it’s lead single ‘Senorita’ that most demonstrates how quickly violence can erupt on an even seemingly secure day in the hood. The hook, provided by a fierce sample from Future, precedes all of Staples’ verses and as such gives them a haunting sense of unease. The trap-influenced track is one of the album’s more energetic songs but it’s no less biting. At one point, the speaker asks “What would you murder for? Will your name hold weight when the curtains close?” He doesn’t give an answer to either but we are presented with two shootings at the end of each verse – one because the speaker was dissed, the other because he wanted out of an impoverished life – whether there’s a difference is up for you to decide. 

Although it’s his West Coast forefathers that come to mind first, it’s actually the East Coast sound of Nas’s Illmatic that he’s most emulating, at least in lyrical terms. Both artists share that same sense of place and fatalistic outlook and also understand that brief highs in the ghettos will usually be followed up by inevitable lows. ‘Norf Norf’ might as well have the working title ‘Long Beach State of Mind’ for the parallels it shares with the New York veteran’s most enduring track.

Vince Staples has delivered the second best hip hop album of 2015. This is the year of To Pimp a Butterfly, after all, and as such it’s a remarkable achievement.