“He is the antagonist. That’s his character.” These words are rapper Earl Sweatshirt’s description of his 22-year-old dear friend Vince Staples, a fellow MC by way of Long Beach, CA. Vince might be a member of the 2015 XXL Freshman Class and a recent Def Jam signee, but prior to all of this Vince found himself rapping as early as five years ago which was likely a hobby to keep himself away from worse things, but allowed him to make friends with several members of Odd Future and ultimately find his way on Sweatshirt’s debut-mixtape EARL—specifically an exceptionally vile and gruesome verse on the standout ‘Epar’, a song boisterous and entertaining but detailing rape and murder all in the name of shock value. In 2015, though, Vince Staples finds himself embodying a different kind of antagonist—one that embodies and relishes in his matured outlooks on his gang involvement in years past.
Instead of epitomizing a struggle rapper that gang-banged to get by and was a victim of circumstance, Vince is the kid from the hood that “had fun” growing up, playing his part and content in a world where he knew no other destiny, only realizing the toxic nature of his adolescence in retrospect when the notoriety of his music removed him from it. With his mixtape series Shyne Coldchain and other projects like Stolen Youth or last Fall’s Hell Can Wait, Vince found himself glorifying the violent and destructive behavior of his childhood, playing the villainous role of an emotionless, stone cold gang-banger with a haunting and monotone flow, yet on his debut double-album Summertime ’06, Vince presents the tales of his real teenage days with a bleeding heart and without filters. It’s a compassionate, moving record that will still have trunks rattling and speakers throbbing, all while Vince lyrically details his battle with balancing the hyper-masculinity that comes with being a Long Beach Crip, and the emotional torture of pursuing peace in an environment that only promises death.
Summertime ’06 is sonically unlike anything Vince has touched in projects past—it’s glaringly abrasive, visceral and thumps with an industrial-influence. DJ Dahi, No I.D., and Clams Casino who handled most of the production on the double-album all contributed to push a cohesive, unsettling sound, all while Vince rides beats playing flow-roulette, approaching each track with a different bounce. It might be advertised as a double album, but it clocks in at a modest 59 minutes due to the brief, fast-paced nature of the record. Vince adapts by switching perspectives and topics from song to song, never resting his head on one sentiment for too long. The album’s real intro, ‘Lift Me Up’ buzzes with a sinister bass-line, as Vince wastes no time carving his mind into the canvas provided. “I’m just a nigga, until I fill my pockets” are the first bars you hear on the album—lines that are eccentric and self-aware, but the song’s hook serves as a cry for help to any God listening, as Vince spits “Can a motherfucker breathe?/Life ain’t always what it seems, so please just lift me up”.
Vince Staples is not one for finesse or elegance in his bars. He employs a much more bleak, to-the-point mode of storytelling, with an immense amount of energy and intensity in every song, regardless of the dark, dismal content; ‘Dopeman’ sees Kilo Kish lending her vocals for a bone-chilling refrain with Vince following with a verse stretching words playfully, while the Future-sampling single ‘Señorita’ sees Vince matching Future’s energetic verse and the trembling 808’s with a skipping flow. Vince’s tone and inflection on these songs are packed full of bite and youth, but there are points on this double record where he becomes more soft-spoken as he tip-toes around the affairs of love and romance—specifically in the first disc of the album. Songs like ‘Lemme Know’ with Jhené Aiko and DJ Dahi on vocal support and ‘Loca’ outline specific love interests of different flavors, with the latter being a standout in the way it bangs and lyrically lends itself to modern classics like 50’s ’21 Questions’. Summertime ’06 does not follow any linear thematic outline, but it does feature swings in emotion and seems to mature gradually from first disc to the second. It seems at the tail end of the first half of the album, Vince ditches his female infatuations and trades the romance for his pistol again, as the second half of the record morphs into a much more hard-bodied, gang-banging anthems. ‘3230’ rides with a distorted bump, ‘Street Punks’ with a clanging and tropical notes. ‘Get Paid’ with unknown female vocalist Desi Mo is blatantly Clipse inspired with it’s minimalistic beat and perpetually violent lyrics.
Not all of Summertime ’06 is a newer spin on trunk-rattling gangsta rap, though—Vince’s conscious and witty side shapes some bars into poignant, refreshing takes on current events and social issues. The final track on the first portion, ‘Summertime’ is a slow burning jam beautifully produced by Clams Casino, where Vince ponders life and love. Between a Nirvana-inspired hook and his lamenting over romance, Vince also explores things taught to him: “My teachers told me we was slaves/My mama told me we was kings/I don’t know who to listen to/I guess we somewhere in between”. ‘Surf’ on the second disc is also padded with important questions and self-aware lines that speak to the times, like “More black kids killed from a pill than the FEDs in the projects/In the planned parenthood playin’ God with ya mom’s check, you ain’t even been to prom yet” and “Just a pawn and a plan tryin’ to hold on/When the smoke clear why was the war fought?/Bout time you abandon the folklore”. Vince is at his most introspective on the album’s formal conclusion, ‘Like It Is’. The Andre 3000 sampling track features Vince at his most personal and matured, eager to trade in the violence and street life to spark a change in his town and lineage. The track features spoken-word speeches from Vince directly speaking to the listener and telling stories about the insignificance of his race and the struggles of existing in an enduringly pimped and appropriated culture.
It’s this personal, heart-wrenching, reality-stricken side of Vince that is actually the most absent on this record, to a fault. The only glaring issue with Summertime ’06 is the lack of genuinely moving sentiments and overall vagueness of the content. Sure, he talks about and references his neighborhood throughout the record and touches on the illegal ways of his past, but he never shares too much or gets too deep into anything, turning instead to melody and catchy hooks before ever lyrically expounding into any topic; and by the end of the record, you walk away without knowing why the summer of 2006 was specifically so important to Vince—an issue made worse when you realize there isn’t enough of an emotional and personal story arc to fill two discs, let alone one.
Still, Summertime ’06 presents a pressure-filled record that bounces and bangs in a traditional way, but also leans on modern industrial influences. It might lyrically borrow from the likes of Dipset and G-Unit, but Vince innovatively pairs this with Yeezus-inspired bass-lines and fast paced drums akin to El-P or Death Grips. Vince might not have dove too deep lyrically, but the verdict still stands on one of the year’s most poignant, inventive albums: Summertime ’06 is gangsta rap in a straight jacket and skinny jeans, and ultimately delivers a sound you can’t find anywhere else.