Vince Staples Can See His Own Death

I wouldn’t necessarily say I’m not optimistic,” says Vince Staples. Conversations with the Long Beach, California rapper tend to quickly stray into discussions of perspective and experience — Would you believe what you believe if you weren’t who you are? — and ours, held in a boardroom in the New York offices, is no exception. “I see the worst-case scenario and I operate based off the worst-case scenario. I’ve always been like that. That’s what’s kept me out of jail. I’ve always thought of what’s the worst possible thing that could happen, and then you work up from there.” He’s wearing simple clothing: a T-shirt, pants, and sneakers of no special distinction, plus large glasses that could only be described as nerdy. Loud or soft, his voice has a certain private register to it. He’s gifted at maintaining your attention while considering his words and himself at a remove. Not in an egotistic way, but in a soberly bemused, meditative, isn’t-it-strange kind of way.

We’re convening to discuss Prima Donna, Staples’s third major-label project and second EP. Staples has a predilection for the shorter collection. His breakout mixtapes had an average length of 30 minutes; likewise, his debut album, last year’s justly laudedSummertime ’06, is broken into two halves of roughly 30 minutes each. This hardly means Staples lacks for substance: Rather, it’s a testament to his capacity to speak his piece succinctly. In an era where overproduction seems like a prerequisite to breaking through, he’s committed to concision and quality; in a world where the only exposure for a rapper is overexposure, he strives to maintain a low profile.

Of course, he’s aware — painfully aware — of the enticements offered to a young rap artist on the cusp of stardom. For at least a generation, the “rapper” has been an increasingly prominent archetype as it inexorably displaced the rock star as a hero of hedonism — “gangster gone Gatsby,” in Staples’s pithy formulation on the EP’s centerpiece “Loco.” As its title suggests, Prima Donna is an examination of this figure conducted by an artist uniquely well positioned to observe and report on it. As well as imagine: Staples’s ability to remain fully grounded while also hovering above himself is hardly limited to interviews. There’s a subtle weirdness to his art, a sense of spiritual displacement that easily gets overshadowed by more obvious characteristics such as his mordant wit, verbal technique, and realism. This strangeness is what separates Staples from his fellow West Coast Crip and sometime collaborator Schoolboy Q, with his more thorough devotion to concrete existence, just as the open-ended nature of that strangeness separates Staples from the more programmatically spiritual Kendrick Lamar. Staples doesn’t have all the answers: His declaration near the start of our hour-long conversation that “I don’t know where I’m going” is bracketed near the end by his statement that “I’ve always been comfortable not knowing.” In contrast to the future-oriented, aspirational tendencies of most rap artists and the memorial impulses that drove Summertime ’06, he’s aimed in Prima Donna to create a work of art that lives entirely in the present moment.

That moment is, it’s safe to say, troubled and often desperate. Staples’s penchant for plotting out the worst case and then building up from there is fully evident on an EP envisioning his own self-inflicted death. The examination of the ties between success and self-destruction is hardly limited to rap (it’s no accident that Wavves and Kurt Cobain are name-checked on Prima Donna, or that the track “Smile,” with its anthemic resonance, stomping pace, and guitar solo, is a rock song in all but name), and even within rap, it’s hardly a new topic. Inaugurated by the Geto Boys’ “Mind Playing Tricks on Me” (1991) and Ready to Die’s “Suicidal Thoughts” (1994), the habit has been carried on to the present in albums as disparate as Drake’s Take Care and Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly. As is the case with these latter two albums, Staples’s collection is necessarily self-centered, but beyond this it operates in a different register. For Drake the self is all there is; with Kendrick, it’s the self’s capacity for redemption that matters above all else. If his words and actions are any indication, Staples isn’t interested in status anxiety and he doesn’t present himself as a savior with solutions. What fascinates him on Prima Donna is not the self, but fate and its reversibility.

Since its first track begins with the (implied) death of the artist by his own hand and ends with the artist’s celebrating his rise to fame, moving forward on the EP means moving backward in its story, and vice versa. Staples’s sense of being in and out of one’s self, so evident in our conversation, is translated by a narrative sense of being in and out of time. And reinforced musically: Aside from “Smile,” the album alternates between interludes where Staples morosely sings simple lyrics without accompaniment (“We all waste away,” “Sometimes I feel like giving up,” “I just want to show you better”) and digitized instrumentals bristling with abrasion, distortion, dissonance, and irregular rhythm whose complexity the artist matches with a conjunction of wit, nimble prosody, and endlessly inventive delivery. Heightened by a pounding beat charged with thin stabs of synth and topped off with incrementally higher snatches of an emergency-klaxon-like noise connoting ever-rising anxiety, the flawless execution of the amphibrachs, spondees, dactyls, and trochees on “Loco” stuns as its jump-cut progression of images dizzies:

I write the James Joyce,
Don’t need the Rolls-Royce;
I need a straitjacket —
Finna go batshit;
Sick of these rappers — 
Stealing my swagger,
Trying to run with the penmanship practiced.
Gangster gone Gatsby;
Fades with no lotion:
Get this shit cracking,
Crack his jaw open;
Crack in my system:
Daddy loved smoking
Like he loved smoking niggas, no joking.

Here and in conversation, it isn’t hard to discover the artist’s keen awareness of the roots of his disorientation. Staples is a gangster rapper with a penchant for studying history, both his own, his family’s, and that of his native Southern California in general: He recommends I read City of Quartz, the landmark Los Angeles history composed by Marxist urban theorist Mike Davis, which details the city’s original control by a Wasp elite grown rich from real-estate speculation and the city’s long-standing division along ethnic lines, with separate neighborhoods of the city settled by Wasps, Irish, Italians, Jews, Mexicans, Asians, and black Americans and neighborhood boundaries ruthlessly enforced by both the LAPD and white vigilante gangs. Immigrants from the West Indies, Staples’s grandparents lived in Los Angeles during a postwar period of relative prosperity but also saw their hard-earned economic gains destroyed in the wake of the stagnant and violent 1970s, when former members of a Black Panther movement shattered by FBI surveillance and infiltration created a street gang that came to be known as the Crips and rival street gangs responded by coalescing to form the Bloods.

Staples’s maternal grandfather’s experience of this historical turbulence was immediate. An Army veteran turned black nationalist turned Crip, he raised his children within the social context of gang life. “We come from a generation where our parents are the gang members,” he says. It’s a fraught heritage, but it’s a heritage regardless, and once Staples, an excellent student (particularly in English), was expelled from his majority-white high school on trumped-up charges, there was nothing left for him to do but embrace it in full, despite his parents’ wishing otherwise. “As a child, when your parents are working so hard to provide for you and keep you locked from [gang life], there’s no way to not see it. You know where their energy’s going. If you walk into the house every morning and your mother’s like, ‘Hi, son, how are you doing?,’ and your father’s like, ‘Hi, son, how are you doing?,’ and they’re standing in front of a door blocking it, you might not notice for a little bit. But one day, you’ll be like, ‘What the fuck is in there?’”

Staples is reticent about the specifics of the years of his life spent as an active member of the Naughty Nasty Crip set who roved in the vicinity of Poppy Street and Ramona Park on the north side of Long Beach. Though he witnesses to its brief elations in his lyrics, it’s not a life he ever glamorizes. He’s seen too many people suffer, among them those dearest to him: “My cousin, my closest friend, one of my best friends in the world, he got shot, went into a coma. I was like, who else is going to be next? It’s going to be me. We were the same age, born a week apart. We grew up together. So when I saw him, I saw me.” Realizing his mother and sister would be left destitute once he died, Staples decided on a change.

He stepped back from gang activity and devoted himself to rap. He found his way into the orbit of Earl Sweatshirt and Odd Future and Mac Miller and made a name for himself as a nimble and incisive chronicler of his past life: “Stuck in my ways / The love and the hate / Was both shoved in my face / Gotta stay on your toes / Head starts in the race / Just wasn’t given to those / Who came up where I stay.” Currently, things have never been better for him. He’s recording and touring and can live comfortably for the first time in his life. But the price he’s paying for breaking with his past — “I turned my back on my friends, I turned my back on my home, I left the street where I’ve grown to chase the yellow brick road” — is anything but minimal. The second and third thoughts that he once suppressed in the interests of maximizing his physical survival have returned in full force. The cover of Prima Donna displays Staples’s upper body isolated against an off-white background: His head disproportionately inflated, he gazes past the viewer with a sad, tired expression. The EP begins with the artist’s despondent singing of “This Little Light of Mine” cut off abruptly by a gunshot, and vivid references to self-annihilation pepper the remaining tracks: “Need a breather from the tripping: either that or my brains to the ceiling”; “Buy a million-dollar home and blow my dome to paint the kitchen”; “No room to think, kaboom on the sink”; “Blood rushing through my brain, sometimes I want to kill myself.” Much as the human body, designed to resist Earth’s atmospheric pressure with its own internal pressure, explodes from that same internal pressure in the vacuum of outer space, the combination of solitude, ease, and fame available to a young man whose mind was forged under drastically more adverse conditions has the potential to destabilize him, make him literally lose his integrity.

Photo: Yayo

In verses as in life, his means of relief are few. He never drinks, never smokes, and never does drugs; furthermore, his distaste for the mood-altering dogmas of religion has been witnessed to time and again back to his early mixtapes. “What my pastor say? Some shit that I don’t believe. What my master say? Nigga, you won’t be free.” Though Staples’s devout mother and Christian-school education ensured that he would be fluent in the doctrine, and though he’s not above praying for rescue on Prima Donna, his prolonged exposure to the promise of salvation seems to have sharpened his skepticism. As the parallelism of the quote above suggests, he’s well aware of how Christianity has been used by states to license imperial conquest and instill obedience in subject populations. When he reviews his parochial education, he’s reminded of the link between its thoughtless repetition and a military worldview: “We raise soldiers. When I first saw Full Metal Jacket, I thought it was hilarious. I thought it was the funniest thing I’d ever seen in my life. I’m like, these motherfuckers are crazy. But then I started to notice things that translated into everyday life. Then it was like, Oh, this is mylife.

Whether in the next world or this one, Staples seems determined to come by his pleasures honestly and humanely, if at all. He’s dated only two women, both of whom figure prominently in his recent collections — one appears as a voice berating him in Spanish on “Loco” and its Summertime ’06 counterpart “Loca,” and the other is mournfully addressed in the a cappella coda to Prima Donna’s “Smile” and Summertime ’06’s “Summertime.” He’s no longer dating either woman. The end of the relationship with the woman of “Summertime,” which had been off and on for over a decade, seems to have hit him especially hard: It finally snapped for good under the strain of the chronic absenteeism that Staples’s musical career demands of him. “I want people to be happy in life,” he says, referring to his ex as he reviews the breakup for what can’t be the first, or last, time. “If I see someone that has the potential to be a happy person, I want that for them.” When asked if he has such potential, he responds, “I don’t know. I honestly don’t know. I would hope so.”

What isn’t in doubt for him, though, are the vital roles that women have played in his life. If, with his no-nonsense temperament, Staples partly resembles the West Coast gangster rappers of a bygone era, nothing could be further from his spirit than the unfeeling misogyny associated with N.W.A and its successors. Even “Pimp Hand,” Prima Donna’s seemingly unambiguous ode to male dominance, is subtly ironized by the narrative of the collection at large: Whether one reads the EP forward or backward, the benefits of lording it over women come at the expense of one’s own soul. His sympathy with women began at home. “When I was a kid, I was just so sad that I had a mother and sister. ’Cause I was like, Their life must be so hard. And I can’t do shit for them, know what I mean? You just see what they go through every day and it just makes you feel bad. In your head, being a kid, you know, it’s like, Oh, can I help them, am I part of the problem? Why did my dad make my mom cry? Why did my sister’s boyfriend make her cry? Why doesn’t she get paid as much as this guy — don’t they do the same job?” (One of the primary reasons he committed himself fully to his Crip set was his desire to provide for his mother, ailing from cancer, and his sister, who had been shot.) He’s convinced that women, if compensated fairly for their labor, would deserve far more than men: “Women get nothing close to what they’re worth. If they gave women equality to men, they’re still undercutting them enough to get fucking sued for everything that we have.”

His personal appreciation for women is matched by his appreciation for female musicians. Despite being profoundly influenced by Kanye West (as seen in his blunt assertions of black identity and his skepticism toward education), he readily acknowledges that Missy Elliott is the most creative rapper he’s ever heard. “My favorite people that have ever made music were women. Amy Winehouse, Lauryn Hill, and Beth” — Beth referring to Beth Gibbons, the vocalist of Portishead, the group whose songs were, for Staples, “the first music I ever heard in my life that connected to me.” When I venture the opinion that what seems most distinctive about Third, the 2008 Portishead album, is the subtle, inimical relationship between the lyrical content and the production, he adds, “I can’t wait till the day I’m able to create that music. That’s what keeps me going, just knowing that I have something that I have to make one day.” Given that the self-questioning content of Prima Donna is paired with production (from a dream team of James Blake, DJ Dahi, and NO I.D.) whose synthetic textures simulate the unreality of fame and whose lopsided rhythms mimic the spiritual instability the EP’s speaker strives to overcome, that day may be closer than Staples realizes, or perhaps dares to hope. His wiry, expertly staccato rapping doesn’t much resemble Beth Gibbons’s densely layered invocations, but what he and the English songstress share at heart — a sober conviction that one’s worst enemy is oneself — is, I think, far more significant and essential. Even if, as he says to me, Staples isn’t yet prepared to work with Portishead producer Geoff Barrow, it seems clear that very soon he will be.

Several hours after our conversation, I attend the screening for the music video accompanying Prima Donna. The event was an efficient affair: A Soho store specializing in sound systems had been rented out after closing. There was a small open bar; bags of quasi-artisanal popcorn were provided. The ten-minute video traces a narrative in which Staples, playing himself, gradually goes mad in the process of exiting the set of a music video, riding in an old-fashioned cab, arriving at a hotel, and entering his room, and dies on the floor of a forest, presumably by his own hand. Much as the EP’s percussive forces gradually imprint themselves upon the ear, the video, with its lurid, gorgeous colors, feels like a retinal tattoo. It’s impressive, especially when one considers that the concept for the video, as with all of Vince Staples’s music videos, came directly from the artist himself. The frequency with which he refers to the visual arts is striking. Brain paintings aside, Prima Donna also cites the Mona Lisa, Van Gogh, da Vinci, and Richardson fashion magazine, and its music video is heavily influenced by The Shining; in our interview, he referred to Warhol, Van Gogh, and the trailer for the upcoming Japanese Godzilla film and mentioned that he built his album’s sound based on visual ambiences from TV and film. (I was surprised to learn from him that the way Summertime ’06 sounds was inspired, in large part, by the way The Andy Griffith Show and American History X look.)

Staples isn’t a record producer or a visual director, but he does have visions, and his rising reputation means that, more and more, he can find the producers and directors (in the case of the Prima Donna video, Nabil) who can faithfully translate those visions into reality. Though signed to a major label, he has minimal obligations to Def Jam: In exchange for a smaller budget, he’s been granted the time and aesthetic control to develop a body of work that he can take pride in without exception. The figure responsible for these sweetheart arrangements is Staples’s manager Corey Smyth, a kindly 43-year-old who, having managed artists for more than half his life, can offer his artist access to connections and resources typically available only to more commercially oriented performers. No less a manager than a mentor, Smyth exudes a sense of hard-earned optimism that can temper Staples’s less sanguine view of reality: In the midst of a forecast shared between Staples and myself that the future was guaranteed to be burning, violent, and famished, Smyth interrupted us to offer his prediction that science and technology would save the day. Regardless of whether there will be a 22nd century, it’s clear to the artist that he’s in good hands. “I have the best person I could possibly have as far as helping me do what I want to do. There are no limits to what he will do to make sure I’m able to do what I’m able to. I’ve spent my whole life worrying. This is the first time I haven’t had to worry about if something was going to be okay.”

It’s humbling to recall that, after having endured (and inflicted) infernal levels of grief and trauma and after having raised that experience to the level of art without falsifying its reality, Vince Staples is only 23 years old. No sane person would begrudge him a measure of self-indulgence or importance, yet he refuses arrogance as he would refuse any other intoxicant. He’s determined to view himself as a novice when he could easily claim to be a master, yet this only heightens the suspicion that his conception of knowledge and excellence is beyond what even his admirers are capable of imagining. It’s easy to overlook how radical it is to admit to one’s ignorance in an era where snide lecturing and querulous condescension are the dominant modes of discourse, just as it’s easy to overlook the latent genius of such an admission: The only way to learn more is to accept that one doesn’t already have all the answers. “I don’t believe anything is absolute and I don’t believe that anything is false. ’Cause I know for a fact I don’t know.”

Vince Staples Can See His Own Death