On Friday, March 23, the electro-pop collective Gorillaz released four singles from their highly anticipated fifth studio album Humanz, due for release on April 28. Like most Gorillaz projects, the album looks to be a highly collaborative project, with guest appearances from Grace Jones, De La Soul, and Carly Simon. But, in contrast to those long-established artists, the first of the four singles — “Ascension,” which is also the first proper song on the album — features a still up-and-coming artist: 23-year-old rapper Vince Staples.
Staples’ verse on “Ascension” serves as a fiery introduction to his work for the uninitiated. Apocalyptic imagery collides with racial commentary, bleak nihilism with wry humor. It’s a party song with anti-establishment politics; it ends with Staples declaring America to be “the land of the free / Where you can get a Glock and a gram for the cheap / Where you can live your dreams as long as you don’t look like me.”
It’s a theme that has extended throughout Staples’ short but prolific career: How do you live in a country where the odds of success are stacked against you, especially when the alternative — crime — seems so much more achievable?
Staples doesn’t offer any easy answers — in fact, he goes out of his way to avoid them. There’s no moralizing in his music, only contradictions and puzzles that force listeners to confront them head-on, to empathize with the subjects of his songs.
“I don’t feel like I need to go too deeply into explaining my lyrics,” Staples wrote on the lyric annotation website Genius in 2015. “People don’t care about what’s happening in Long Beach, or Compton, or Watts…. When they look at these areas, and look at these people, they don’t see themselves. Until people really see themselves within other people, they can’t genuinely care for their betterment. It’s hard to understand and respect things that are different than us. We need to start looking at each other eye-to-eye.”
“The Most Exciting Man in Rap”
Staples grew up in Ramona Park, a neighborhood in Northside, Long Beach, California. His adolescence was immersed in gang culture; at one point, he was affiliated with the area’s Crip gang, a fact he addresses, with some ambivalence, in his music. “If you don’t have anything better to do, you find time to do the wrong things,” he said in an interview last year with ESPN. “These things aren’t based in crime or wrong or things like that; these things are based in being part of a certain community.”
Eventually, though, Staples saw himself drawn toward a different community. He became a friend and frequent collaborator of the Los Angeles rap collective Odd Future, though he was never an official member. He released his first mixtape, Shyne Coldchain Vol. 1, when he was 18; over the next two years, he released two collaborative mixtapes, 2012’s Winter in Prague with producer Michael Uzowuru and 2013’s Stolen Youth with Mac Miller, both of which saw his profile start to rise in indie rap circles. His breakout moment arguably came on a 2013 guest verse on “Hive,” a song from rapper Earl Sweatshirt’s debut album Doris. Pitchfork called Staples’ performance on the song “career-exploding.”
A critically acclaimed debut studio EP, Hell Can Wait, followed for Staples in 2014, but it wasn’t until the release of his first proper studio album, Summertime ‘06, that the extent of his ambition became clear. That record, a double album about a formative time in Staples’ life, was a dizzyingly dark, meticulously structured collection of songs that examined in unsparing detail the bravado and tragedy of gang life while simultaneously probing the cultural attitudes that perpetuate it. “I never vote for presidents; the presidents that change the hood / Is dead and green,” he raps on the song “Lift Me Up.” The album led Rolling Stone to declare him “the most exciting man in rap.”
Summertime ‘06 was followed by last year’s Prima Donna EP, a seven-song collection that focused largely on Staples’ new success. Its release was accompanied by a surreal, 10-minute short film inspired by The Shining that showed Staples fatally succumbing to the overwhelming pressures of fame.
Now, Staples is finishing up work on his second studio album, Big Fish Theory, which is slated for release later this year. He’s holding the details of the record close; aside from the release of the single “Bagbak” earlier this year, the only detail that’s been released about the album is the title, which, for now, is relatively opaque.
“Which Position Do I Play in This?”
“It’s not as simple as it might seem,” Staples says, referring to the title of the new album. “It’s definitely based on perception. You try to make as much limitless opportunity for someone to draw from the music as possible.”
Over the phone, Staples is soft-spoken and polite, if a little cagey. There’s the sense that he prefers to let his music do the talking; providing supplemental information could prove counter to the deliberate open-endedness of his lyrics.
“I’m personally a believer that music means what you want it to, you know what I mean?” he says. “Like, I’m just here to make the song. If a song means something to [the audience] and this what they see it as, then in my opinion, that’s the correct definition. Because in my opinion, it’s open for interpretation. Everyone should be able to take from it what they choose…. I think just making statements based on your emotions and letting people use those statements to try to heighten their own emotions or discover their own emotions — not the way that I look at it personally — and go from there… There’s no wrong way to ingest the music.
“It’s like a painting in a gallery,” he continues. “You can choose which angle you want to look at it from. You can choose what you consider to be the focal point. It’s really all up to what you see, and I think just leaving it open-ended was just something that we wanted to do… We didn’t really want to constrict anyone’s thoughts.”
That isn’t the first time Staples has mentioned his music in comparison to art galleries. In an early March interview with Canadian media personality Nardwuar, he facetiously compared his music to the “real art house” works of visual artists Richard Prince, Robert Longo, and “Damien Hirst in 1997.”
When asked about the comparisons, Staples chuckles. “I was just joking,” he says. “I appreciate what they do, but I wouldn’t compare myself [to them]. It’s a completely different medium, and I don’t want to diminish anyone else’s work or for someone to take me the wrong way. I’m just a fan.”
But with Hirst specifically, he says, it’s “the way he creates his installations. They always have a meaning [based] on the way you look at it. It’s [can appear] simple or nothing that interesting to the wrong person, but it can mean everything to the right person.”
Of course, with race as a common subject matter in Staples’ music, the question of who the “right person” is can become difficult. It’s an issue he addresses in a line from “Lift Me Up”: “All these white folks chanting when I ask them where my n—s at / Going crazy, got me going crazy / I can’t get with that.”
Is that a tension that Staples finds present in the way that audiences interact with his music?
“I wouldn’t say that it’s tension,” he says. “I would say it’s a statement. It’s something that’s factual. Based on the fact of that happening, the way you look at it determines where you sit along that fence. Someone could think, ‘Am I a problem?’ Someone could think, ‘Am I a part of this? Which position do I play in this? Am I the antagonist or the protagonist?’ There are ways you can look at it based on where you feel like you personally fit.”
“You Have to Reach a Breaking Point”
Interviewing Vince Staples comes with a caveat: no questions about politics, and no questions about Donald Trump. A publicist from Def Jam, Staples’ record label, listens in on the conversation, ready to interrupt should the questioning head in that direction.
In some ways, the need for such measures speaks to the strength of Staples’ lyrical perspective; at 23, he’s already seen by some to have valuable political opinions. But to Staples, the questions are a distraction from what he really finds important.
“I don’t see it as something I struggle with, but I see it as something that just doesn’t make much sense,” he says. “I don’t know why [political questions need] to be asked from a standpoint of the art and what I create, because that leads me to believe that people aren’t into the art or paying attention to what [I] create, and that means we have nothing to talk about.”
And when it comes to Staples’ art, there’s plenty to talk about in 2017. There’s that prominent role on the new Gorillaz record. There’s his “The Life Aquatic” tour — which, Staples says, takes little substantial inspiration from the Wes Anderson film of the same name — on which he shares the bill with experimental singer-songwriter and frequent collaborator Kilo Kish.
And then, of course, there’s the still-mysterious Big Fish Theory. “We’re finishing that up now,” Staples says. “As soon as we know all the ins and outs, that’s when we’ll start letting [details] out, little by little.”
It seems likely that Big Fish Theory will be another boundary-pushing effort from the rapper, who has yet to release a major studio effort that adheres to the structure and format of a traditional full-length album.
“I don’t look at, ‘This is the standard way to create,’” Staples says. “I think you make a project however you see fit. If it’s going to be seven [songs] or 10 or 15 or one or two, that’s what we’re going to do, because it’s all based on the creative nature. A lot of formats and things like that kind of cater more to commercial reasons, but those are secondary, if that even, when we create.”
He decides a project is done, he says, when it reaches “a breaking point.”
“There’s always more to do, but it just reaches a point where it has to be finished. I don’t really know how to explain it… If you can’t think of anything more to do, then it’s done.”
Vince Staples will perform at Saturn on Tuesday, April 4. Kilo Kish will open. Doors for the show open at 8 p.m.; the show begins at 9 p.m. Tickets to the 18-and-up show are $18 in advance and $22 at the door. For more information, visit saturnbirmingham.com.
Staples will also perform at this summer’s Sloss Music & Arts Festival, which will take place on July 15 and 16. For more information, visit slossfest.com.