Vince Staples is more candid than most people. The 22-year-old Long Beach rapper doesn't mince words. He doesn't bullshit or talk in euphemisms. "I'm just trying to be honest," he says.
As a result, he comes across as grounded and earnest, as he did in an NPR interview, explaining that real-life concerns are more important than his artistry: "Life is the important part. That's the priority, and then music comes second."
Sometimes, he can be hilariously blunt, as when he swatted down a Meet the Musician interviewer's attempt to draw a connection to DJ Jazzy Jeff and The Fresh Prince and his own album Summertime '06, saying, "Nobody my age is thinking about a Fresh Prince song, at all...you old, though." Staples tells it like it is, and that commitment to the truth is a crucial aspect to who he is as an artist. As a songwriter, he pours his energy into making music that's as honest a representation of who he is and where he's from as possible. Staples doesn't consider that much of a challenge. Honesty is his default setting.
"It's not that hard," Staples says in a phone call ahead of his winter Circa '06 tour. "It's probably harder to lie than it is to tell the truth."
Vince Staples' new album Summertime í06, released in June via Def Jam Recordings, is as up-front and unvarnished as hip-hop albums get. It's nowhere near the neighborhood of pop-rap's hedonism, nor wrapped up in complex mythologies or personas. Instead it's a clear-eyed and often bleak survey of his upbringing as a teenager (he was 13 in the summer of 2006) in Long Beach.
The portrait he paints of his home city on Summertime '06 is a dark one. As he remarks on the album's first proper song, "Lift Me Up," "This shit ain't Gryffindor, we really killin', kickin' doors." Crime, death and survival are recurrent themes on the album, and Staples presents them matter-of-factly, whether witnessing "another dead body in the alley" on "Birds & Bees," or delivering the surprisingly catchy hook, "We ain't never run from nothing but the police" on the single "Norf Norf," named for the Northside Long Beach neighborhood where he lived.
Not that Staples is completely pessimistic. He says he had plenty of good times during the summer of 2006. But he's not necessarily a nostalgic person. He's also not the kind of person to dwell on the negatives of the past.
"I feel like everyone has difficult times, and everyone also has fond memories of other times. I don't think too much about things like that," he says. "It's nothing I really want to think about either, to be honest. You just gotta move on. I don't live in the past."
The atmosphere on Summertime '06 is just as eerie and grimy as its subject matter. Most of the production work on the album was done by No I.D., who has also worked with Kanye West, Jay Z and Nas. A few songs were also produced by Clams Casino, though the ambiance of the album is consistently claustrophobic and abrasive, each beat a haunting backdrop to the dimly lit walking tours of Long Beach that Staples guides. Even the album's artwork has a gothic sensibility, its minimal design a subtle reference to Joy Division's Unknown Pleasures, which is one of Staples' less overt influences.
There are few songs here that could pass for an actual summertime club banger. Yet when asked what draws him to a darker aesthetic or a harsher narrative, Staples grows more philosophical about his intentions and how people hear the album.
"Is it really that dark?" he asks. "Or is that just a perception? It's not something that I really thought about at the time. When you're a kid, things that are wrong might not seem as wrong."
Summertime '06 is an ambitious album, and not only because of how it captures a particular time and place in vivid, sometimes heartbreaking detail. It's Staples' debut full-length album, but it's also a double album, spreading out the young rapper's narratives over the course of 20 songs on two separate, distinct halves.
And yet, it's not actually that long of an album. At 57 minutes, it could have fit on just one CD, thanks to the concise nature of the mostly two- and three-minute tracks ("More than two verses, more than three is ridiculous," Staples says, justifying the relative brevity of his songs).
Vince Staples plays December 19 at Observatory North Park
It's also a good 20 minutes shorter than Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp a Butterfly, released just a few months beforehand. Some hip-hop artists such as Future—who released two mixtapes, an album and a full-length collaboration with Drake—go the hyper-prolific route, issuing a seemingly endless stream of music in a short span of time. For Staples, however, it just made more sense to offer listeners a grand statement in one self-contained package.
"We live in a time period where, you know, a lot of...people put out five mixtapes in six months," he says. "You know what I mean? So why not? They can get it for free if they wanted to. What am I going to do with these songs? They're just going to sit around while I wait to put them out? Why not just give people more music. No reason to just hold on to them. I thought it'd be better to put them all out, you know, from a listener's perspective."
Not all of Summertime '06 is an easy listen, but it's presented in an accessible way. Each song is as concise and melodic as it is paranoid and chilling. Staples delivers his message though brutally honest methods, but it's in an attempt to draw listeners closer rather than turn them away. It helps that he's a good storyteller, but more than that, he's sharing his experience, not as an entertainer but as a human being. Summertime '06 is his way of translating that experience into something that others can relate to, or even learn from.
"I mean, the point of life is to live it. And teach each other the lessons that we learn while we're in that process," he says. "I just wanted to tell where I come from and who I am. We're all very different, but we're all very much the same."