'Life Inspires It': A Conversation with Rapper Vince Staples

Concert Preview

Though he turned 22 just earlier this month, Long Beach rapper Vince Staples speaks in the concise sentences of someone much older. He reflects on the events in his life with an uncharacteristic distance and perspective. This incisive reflection shines throughout Summertime ’06, a masterful double album, inspired by the events of his childhood. Specifically, as the title suggests, the album focuses on the summer when the 13-year-old Staples watched gang violence shatter the innocence of his childhood.

Speaking over the phone from a Paris hotel room while on tour in Europe, Staples considers the relationship between this album and that formative summer: “I’ve taken a lot from that time period. I feel like it’s very important to have references based on the things you’ve been through. I just feel like it was the perfect way to go about it as far as what it meant to me at that time and what this album is as far as a turning point, just the beginning of something bigger.”

The mirroring between experience and art is at the the heart of Staples’ music. In a sense, Summertime ’06 isn’t about Staples’ experience as a teenager. Instead, it is that experience, distilled and crystallized, meant to inspire the same complex emotional responses within the listener that Staples once felt.

His aim — to extract specific moments and repackage them as music — helps explain why Staples sometimes struggles to identify definitive artistic influences on the album. “I’m not that kind of person in the studio who’s trying to reference other things," he says. "I just know what I want certain things to sound like.”

When asked specifically about non-musical influences, Staples pauses. “I mean, not really. I wish. Somebody said The Shining, somebody said Pulp Fiction. I was just, you know, building it. I didn’t even think about anything like that . . . Life inspires it. As we grow older we go through things, and we’re always going to be inspired by them, whether we know it or not.”

Staples’ album is certainly concerned with the specifics of his own story, but his unique skill is in capturing the emotional essence of the experience, making accessible music for universal consumption. This ability has made Staples one of the biggest names in rap. Signed to Def Jam Recordings, he recently appeared in the prestigious Freshman Issue from XXL Magazine, and performed on Jimmy Kimmel Live last week.

Perhaps the strongest indication of Staples’ unmistakable talent, though, is the all-star collection of producers who assembled to work on the album. No I.D., the beat-making mastermind behind some of Jay-Z and Kanye West’s biggest singles, executive produced Summertime ’06. Also involved in the project were Clams Casino, who designed the celestial beat on the track "Summertime," giving Staples space to explore some of the more sensitive relationships from his past, and DJ Dahi, the man responsible for Kendrick Lamar’s “Money Trees”.

The recent run of mainstream publicity helps showcase Staples’ charisma. His playful sense of humor has always been a big hit on Twitter, where he has nearly 150,000 followers. Staples enjoys the chance to interact directly with fans, and appreciates the outlet for another dimension of his personality. “It’s the internet, you know, you can’t take it too serious," he says. "Everybody’s not serious 24/7. I mean it’s hilarious.” Then, affecting his best Ron Burgundy impression, offers: “You know, I’m quite a funny guy.”

Staples’ scorching hot NBA takes and hilarious 140-character insights on the plight of modern man humanize the musician in much the same way his songs lend a voice to people from his neighborhood too-long ignored. Staples often likens rap, and urban culture generally, to a type of zoo.

This metaphor is the theme of the music video for “Señorita” the album’s lead single. The song recounts Staples’ experiences as a teenager, and the video depicts a quasi-religious procession through the streets of an exaggerated Long Beach. Members of the train are slowly picked off by mechanized gun towers. Staples, at one point, emerges from a house and climbs into the bed of a parked pickup truck to perform the song, ostensibly for the marchers. The video eventually zooms out to show an idyllic white family, separated from the street by glass, pointing at the procession the way you might interact with animals in a zoo.

In an annotation Staples provided to the lyrics website RapGenius.com, Staples wrote of “Señorita”: “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.”

Staples revisits the image on the album’s final full song, “Like It Is." In a spoken interlude, Staples offers a poignant reflection on this cultural disconnect: “They look at us with these preconceived notions as if, it’s a set way for us all to be. But we’re all people at the end of the day, so I wonder why we don’t treat each other like it.” 

Staples’ preternatural perspective, obvious in interviews, is invaluable when he analyzes mass conceptions of urban neighborhoods. It allows him to understand how rap music affects these conceptions, and his music’s hyperawareness puts Staples on both sides of the zoo glass: simultaneously performing and reflecting on what his performance means. Which, to paraphrase Staples, is a wonderful thing.

Vince Staples
8:30 p.m., Wednesday, July 15, Grog Shop, 2785 Euclid Heights Blvd., Cleveland Heights, 216-321-5588
Tickets: $15, grogshop.gs

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