One of 2015’s best rap albums lands today, and it comes from a guy who claims to not even care all that much about rap music. For more than five years, Vince Staples, a 21-year-old Long Beach native, has been turning heads with sharp-tongued ruminations about his Ramona Park Legend past, police brutality, and black culture. By embracing his gangbanger upbringing — a “soldier since the stroller,” he raps — Staples has landed himself a record deal with Def Jam and a role in Rick Famuyiwa’s Sundance hit Dope. His freshly released debut double album, Summertime ‘06, serves as a letter to the city that raised him — part love, part good-bye. Vulture recently talked to Staples about Summertime, his hilarious cameo in Dope, and what he makes of the shooting in Charleston.
How did you get involved with Dope? You play a character who’s almost your polar opposite: A$AP Rocky’s dimwitted lackey.
I think Pharrell’s company [i Am Other] came to us to try to see if we wanted to be a part of it. That’s a testament to my amazing acting skills. I’m working towards becoming Tom Cruise. Right now I’m like in the George Clooney range, but we’re trying to get up to Tom Cruise, probably Will Smith. But, yeah, it’s crazy. It was definitely a great experience.
There are parallels between Dope’s main character Malcolm’s life and your own. Did anything about the story, particularly his college essay about America’s perception of the black man, resonate with you?
To a certain extent. I grew up in Long Beach, which isn’t far from Inglewood [where the movie is set]. But they’re nothing alike: Inglewood is less diverse. My friend Casey Veggies grew up in Inglewood, and he’s said it’s gotten more diverse over time. But some of those things are very true. There is a perception of black people and black men, but there are differences within every race and gender. That’s something that everyone can relate to because no matter what color or gender you are, there are things that people might think about you.
The title of your album is Summertime ‘06. What about that particular summer has stuck with you?
It was literally a shift of culture in where I came from, and I felt like that was something that needed to be shared with the world. It was a very specific time and very specific way of life for people my age in the place we grew up. This album is about a turning point in my life, a coming-of-age … It was just a very unique experience that not a lot of people have been through.
Your album reflects on a time when you were involved with the Crips. Some of your friends and family members have been killed or locked up because of gang-related crimes. How were you able to escape that lifestyle and get yourself to a positive place?
Well, you gotta understand that it’s not a lifestyle. There are no Crips and Bloods in the sense of, “Oh, we wear blue, they wear red.” It’s not the fucking Power Rangers, like that’s now how things work. [Laughs.] These are systems that have been in place for a very long time. I’m not a Crip or a Blood, I’m from my specific neighborhood. All these things originated as pieces of a community, and the community got destroyed. When that happens, people scramble and try to hold on to the last of what they had. The last of what we had was each other. It’s not a sense of, “I want to be a criminal, so I’m gonna find out where this gang is at and go hang out with them.” No, these are community-based things that are here with or without us.
But of course I don’t think it’s good to be a criminal, but that has nothing to do with being from where you’re from. We don’t think anything of it when you want to be a Democrat or a Republican, but those things also hurt people, and on a much larger scale. We’re not waging wars on entire countries and causing famines and pain when we take from people. These things are based on our own survival in our own certain areas. I do understand what’s right and what’s wrong about it, but I will always be connected to where I come from because I understand the purpose of it. It’s deeply rooted in my family.
There’s a line on the album where you say we’re “used to the sound of violence.” Did anything about what happened with the shooting in Charleston surprise you?
Killing people is never going to surprise me. We’ve got to the point where that is what we are as people. I’m surprised that people are trying to make it what it’s not, in a sense of, “Well, you never know what a person’s going through,” and blah blah blah. “It could be their parents, it could be this.” He could have had a horrible home life, maybe he snapped; all those things are possible, but it doesn’t matter. What matters is that a person killed another person. It surprises me that there’s always an excuse for something. To me, when excuses are made, it makes it seem like if there were different circumstances, murder is justified. That’s what confuses and scares me. People say, “We’re sick of cops killing these black people.” So if it wasn’t a cop, would it matter? If they weren’t black, would it matter?
As with any mass shooting, there’s been a lot of talk following Charleston about gun control as a way to stop the violence. What’s your take on that?
Gun control can go either way. If there’s no guns on the streets, then there are no guns on the streets — but people are gonna find guns, period. We’ve had guns since we were 10, 11, 12 years old, and we knew where to find them and how to use them. If everyone has a gun, then people will be able to protect themselves, and one guy couldn’t walk in to a church and shoot nine people because they might all have a weapon on them. It’s a very touchy subject. Gun control could be loose and be a good thing, or it could be tight and be a good thing. But even if we don’t have guns, people are gonna find other means to hurt people. What does gun control do for the Boston bombing?
Since you’ve been focused on the release of your debut album, it’s probably hard to think about what’s next. Do you have any other projects in the works?
We’re touring right now. But if you want to know what’s next, listen to the last song on the album.
Because of the nature of Summertime and where you grew up, Kendrick Lamar comparisons are inevitable. Are you ready for that?
I appreciate it. But all that means is they’re comparing me to great music. YG had a great album, Schoolboy Q had a great album that’s even better performed live. Kendrick Lamar, we all know how we feel about him, so it just shows I’m doing the right thing. And they’re very much pushing me to become something significant. My album wouldn’t sound like it does without Schoolboy Q or his DJ, because they taught me so many things when I went on that small tour. So I greatly appreciate those comparisons, and I understand the importance of having good people in your corner. I’m just glad I’m able to have that.
Do you think there’ll be pressure for you to be the voice of LBC in the way that Snoop Dogg once was, and the way Kendrick is for Compton now?
I feel no pressure because I’m from where I come from, and I love it so much. To see people from certain neighborhoods be like, “Oh, this shit is tight,” means more than a fucking Grammy to me, because that’s someone who has spent their entire life making the same mistakes me and my friends have made. That shows the music is connected and we’re all the same. I’d rather that pressure than the pressure to be on the radio or make millions of dollars. I need to feel the pressure of bringing positivity and limiting despair. I can’t wait to have to deal with those kinds of pressures.