Vince Staples Is in Control

The Vince Staples saga continues. Since signing to Def Jam, the Long Beach artist has released a new record every year, with his debut LP, the critically celebrated Summertime ‘06 (2015), bracketed by two superb EPs, Hell Can Wait (2014) and Prima Donna (2016), the latter the subject last summer of a Vulture cover story. With his sophomore album Big Fish Theory due to launch this Friday, we caught up with Staples two weeks ago at the New York Magazine offices to discuss a range of topics including fine art, Green Day, Travis Scott, the election, beaches, Eminem, sobriety, and Kendrick Lamar, who according to people who have previewed the upcoming album may or may not appear as a guest.

What’s new with you?
Nothing. Hanging out. Doing the same stuff.

You sleepy?
Nah, just old, man. Sometimes you get old. You get to that point. Bones start hurting.

But you’re like, 25, right?
You know what’s crazy, I’m not even gonna lie to you, bro. I don’t know how old I am right now. I think I’m 22 or 23 but I forgot. I’m dead serious. I was on a plane earlier, and I was like, which birthday am I having this year? I was trying to do the math, but I was real sleepy, so I was like, “Man, I don’t remember … how old I am.”

What’s your birth date?
It’s July 2, 1993, but I was like, it’s like 23 or 24, but you know how you’re sleepy and you don’t feel like thinking about it, so for a couple of hours I didn’t know how old I was. But it was fine. It didn’t bother me at all.

So you don’t feel old or anything.
Nah, I been felt old. Long time ago. It’s cool, though.

What did you learn now that you didn’t know last time we had an interview?
I don’t think I’ve got to the epiphany stage, but I’m pretty sure a lot of things have changed. Probably perspective, more than anything.

What perspectives are changing right now?
I was the person who’d never think of that kind of stuff. I’m just aware of how much information you take in everyday, especially during this job. I know for a fact that certain things have stuck with me, certain things have left, but I think that all comes within the reflection period when you kind of step back and assess it when everything is over. Unfortunately, everything is not over right now. I think everything is in a good space, personally.

Are you nervous about the album coming out?
I’m never nervous. I don’t care enough to be nervous. Like, what can happen?

I remember you saying you always plan for the worst case and build from there. So the worst case for this album isn’t that bad, right?
I already booked my shows for this year, so. You’re going to have to sit down and listen to it. Or you can go get a beverage, but, I will be there. People don’t like your music, it’s a very easy thing to deal with in my opinion. It’s hard for certain people, and I understand and respect that, but for me, it’s like nothing.

You kind of got all that stress out of your system with Prima Donna.
I wasn’t really stressed out in Prima Donna.

You were just playing a part, the whole time.
I mean, it’s funny because we’ve talked about it, for argument’s sake. I just saw a movie on the plane. I saw the Amy Winehouse documentary and I was like, this is sad. This happens a lot. Thought of all the other times it happened, and I was like, I wanna make a little movie thing about it. I’m gonna make a soundtrack. That was Prima Donna. Then it came to the conversation, “Oh, this nigga’s crazy.” I thought it was cute.

You’re not crazy.
I’m very self-aware.

You’re very sober. It took a while for me to realize this, but it seems like all your music, it’s all about the dangers of losing self-control.
Yeah, I like that. I never thought about it that way.

It’s not just like, you’re a sober dude who never drinks or does any drugs, but that’s the core of your music, in a way.
[To his manager] Write that down. You just saved me a lot of [word inaudible] in the next 15 interviews we do with people who don’t pay attention.

So can you tell me a bit about the sound for this new album?
I don’t know. Just a couple of things I wanted to think about based off of the last project and the world that lived in, and just trying to further explore what I wanted to do that I wasn’t able to do. You’re trying to only really make one thing.

You don’t want to repeat yourself.
You’re trying to perfect one thing. But you don’t know what it is, and you’re trying to fill it out as you go. You make mistakes, make different things, but it will always be an updated version of what was next. I’m just trying to do something but not really knowing what it is. I haven’t got there yet. When I get there I’ll probably stop.

Do you expect the audience to help explain to you what it is?
I don’t even think about those people. I don’t mean that in a mean way, but honestly I don’t think about them. It’s not really who I do it for. You can make art or you can make commerce. That’s like a commerce thing. There’s the art buyer, the art dealer, and the artist himself. Last time I checked, my job was to make songs. All the other stuff is extra.

Can you tell me some of the producers on the album? That wouldn’t be spoiling anything, right?
[A long discussion between Vince, his manager, and publicist ensues in which it emerges that naming any featured artists or producers would, in fact, be spoiling something.]

So even after the album’s out, I’ll go on the Wikipedia page for Big Fish Theory and they won’t be listed there.
Oh, there’ll be something there. I don’t know if it’ll be right. I recently saw myself on a track list for the Eminem album, so you never know. I’ve never met him in my life.

But he’s meant something to you? As an influence, or an example …
Oh hell no.

I like 8 Mile though, I love it. I love 8 Mile. And I liked “My Name Is” when I was a kid, and I really liked “Without Me.” “Guess who’s back, back again.” The funny thing is that, no one really cares. They just want to say, “Look what I know.” We’re not in the business of selling hype. We’re here to make songs. If the beautiful people down at Def Jam Records want to display that, that’s something they can do. But my job, I make the songs, I give them to the dealer. The dealer finds the buyer. On the world’s biggest art gallery, the internet. And also maybe Target.

[Corey Smyth, Vince’s manager: “My recollection of it, we were talking about tempo. Tempo was the driving force of this album. That’s how we started it. It ended up as something different, but that’s how we started it.”]

I just wanted the pacing to be appropriate to the message.

What have you been listening to lately that’s not by you?
I listen to “Guidance” by Travis Scott every day. And I listen to what I’m making. I wouldn’t say I’m [a] perfectionist. I don’t think it’s that deep, just being cautious. Once you do it it’s forever.

I know you probably can’t say anything, but are there any guests on this album beside Juicy J [on lead single “Big Fish”] and Ty Dolla $ign [on lead single “Rain Come Down”]?
Yeah. There are [counts slowly] six. Six people, but there’s only two additional verses though. The rest is just cute stuff. Choruses, backgrounds, backflips. All the snazzy things.

So this “aquatic” thing you’re doing with the tour [Staples’ tour is titled “The Life Aquatic” and his hometown is Long Beach], the Big Fish stuff …
I’ve actually never seen that movie, and I don’t plan on it. It looks horrible. Looks really bad, right?

Yeah, it looks so kitschy …
It’s been constant throughout my music.

You’ve got the beachside noises on Summertime ’06
It’s a thing. I’m just trying to find other ways to convey it instead of saying it over and over again.

If I had the ocean close to where I lived all the time, I feel like I would be a totally different person.
You’d be a lot more angry.

You think I’d be more angry?
I promise you.

Why is that?
Depends on what kind of ocean. If you live on Manhattan Beach, a nice ocean, you’ll be fine. Live in San Pedro, Long Beach, Venice Beach, you’d be angry.

Because the beaches are …

You can’t step on the beach?
You can, but how many people step on Venice Beach — it’s weird.

So if the beach is foul, it spreads to your mood.
I’ve never met anyone who grew up by any body of water that wasn’t crazy. You get to the pot at the end of the rainbow, but it’s empty — what if you lived in that empty pot?

So the “Big Fish” in the title of the album. I’ve got a couple ideas what that might mean …
You’re not going to get it right. No one will ever know unless I tell them. Or they’ve known me for like … 23? 23 years.

Your mom knows the title.
Yeah, she knows, my sisters. One day we’ll pull the rabbit out the hat, but I don’t like that stuff. It just doesn’t do any justice to overexplain everything.

How’s your personal life been?
Been good, man. I don’t really have one, I just work.

You don’t go out on dates or anything?
I don’t have time for that. We do shows. Then we record. Then we go do more shows.

You’ve just settled into being just a pure grinder-out of music.
I’ve never really had anything to do. Now that I have something to do, it’s easy. I’ve never really done anything or had anything to motivate me or have any goal or anything like that. Now that we kind of have something to do, it’s easy. I’d honestly just be sitting around if I didn’t have this. It’s cool to focus on it.

So you haven’t had a chance to breathe at all since you started doing this thing?
No. Haven’t needed one yet, though. Maybe a little bit, but I’ve got weeks off.

You don’t take time off or weekends or anything like that.
This week, we’re here doing interviews. Then we fly, tonight, to London for three days, and then we come back here, next week, to do more interviews. And then I have to go to release parties, which I’ve never understood.

They’re not for you.
They’re pointless. The word “party” and my music don’t go together. Then I go back home. Do more release parties and press stuff. Then we got festivals. When we have some time, I go to sleep.

You’ve said you have your music friends and you have your real friends. You never mix those two up at all?
No. That would be very awkward.

So someone like Earl [Sweatshirt], he’s just a music friend.
Yeah, he’s a music friend. He’s my friend, but he’s not someone I’ve spent my entire life with. It’s a big difference. I don’t really talk to him much.

Like, once a month?
Nah, more than that. It’s never been a point in time in my life where I’ve seen him or talked to him everyday. Or anyone I’ve ever made music with. It’s just a misconception. Everyone thinks I’m the guy with friends. Have you ever seen anyone ever speak — it’s not like there’s that many people that speak about Vince Staples’s music, that allude to it. Rappers all hang out and take pictures, post each other’s music and things like that. We’re not parts of that. Never have been. That’s not something we necessarily want.

Have you already started thinking about your next project?
It’s never stopping, you know. It’s creation. The one thing I came to an understanding of, is that there’s a difference between artists and people who make music for consumption. I see people like Kilo Kish, people like Sophie, people like Bon Iver. These people are real artists. They take risks, they do whatever they want to do. When Sophie’s not creating his own music, he’s doing things for the other people within his team. When Kish isn’t creating music, she’s trying to do art shows, she’s trying to make furniture. When Tyler’s not creating music, he’s creating television shows and creating clothing and figuring out what kind of cars he wants. These are artists.

You think those two characters are completely separate? Artist and —
It can cross over. But it doesn’t always. It doesn’t have to. For every Andy Warhol, there’s a Kerry James Marshall. For every Kerry James Marshall, there’s a Damien Hirst or a [Takashi] Murakami. For every Murakami there’s a Robert Longo. It depends on where you want to go with it, but you have a choice. There is a difference. Both are sustainable, and that’s the important part.

Do you hope or expect that people will listen to your music after you’re gone? Like in 100 years?
Yeah. I think everything is about being forever. That’s the point. But my favorite thing about music is the mistakes I make.

There’s this philosopher, he has this idea that the point of life is being able to live it in a way that you’d be able to repeat the whole thing all over again without any kind of alteration. Does that seem like something you’d be into?
Yeah, I mean. It’s been interesting. It’s been very interesting. I would hate for it to be boring, that would suck.

It hasn’t been easy, though.
I wouldn’t say it’s been hard. Cause I don’t know anything else. I can’t complain. Could have been somebody else, that would suck. I like to be me.

It seems to me like there is nobody in this world you would trade lives with.
Yeah. Think so.

When I saw you do the live show at Terminal 5, the lighting was spectacular. I knew that, you being you, that was something you specified.
Oh yeah. But Corey wrote it on a napkin, and he went and found the people. We still have the napkin.

Put it in the Vince Staples Museum in 50 years.
Yeah. I wanna be in like the Met though. Give me like a little Met exhibit. I can get in the MOCA already. I said I want this show to be dark, and I want it to be backlit, and I want it to look like I’m in a fishbowl. And Corey was like, “Uh, all right, say that again.” And he started writing it down, and he was like, “I’ll try,” and then like six months later, whoop-dee-fucking-do. We don’t try to do anything that we’ve seen. We try to think of another idea. Everything is not for me. The easiest way for me to function is to try to create something.

It seems like precision is something you’re very invested in.
I’m very specific on certain things. I’ve always been that way though. It kind of just falls into my music. I’m very specific on like, my house, how my house looks. I don’t like big houses. I don’t like really big cars. I don’t like album booklets. I don’t like bright shows. I don’t like backing bands. I don’t like the sound of live drums. If I don’t like bright lighting ever, why would I want my stage to be bright?

What do you think about mosh pits at your shows?
This is the mosh-pit thing: In two thousand and something, Tyler, The Creator started something called Odd Future and it kind of swept the nation, and now kids feel like that’s what they’re supposed to do. They’re supposed to do the mosh pits, they’re supposed to do the stage dives. From Wu-Tang and Onyx, you know people outside of hip-hop, that’s always been a thing, right? In my personal opinion, Tyler is the dude that was our age going out and touring, and that’s what his shows look like. Now you have like, the Travis Scotts, you have all these other people who have adapted to how people enjoy the shows. I don’t mind it.

It’s not like a Travis Scott show. You go to a Travis Scott show, it’s everywhere, he demands that energy from the crowd, Tyler demands that energy from the crowd. If people are doing things at my shows that they’re doing at those guys’ shows, I can’t be mad. It shows I’m doing something kind of right, you know. It used to be much rowdier than it is now. Now it’s like a small pocket of those kids, it’s not like everyone. Long time ago, it was everyone.

Do you ever wonder about Travis Scott? Like, what his presence means.
He’s a good dude. He cares a lot. I like people who care a lot about what they create. Travis Scott, Schoolboy Q, Kendrick Lamar, there are a lot of people who really put their all into what they create. You can always tell who really cares. A$AP Rocky, Skepta, Stormzy.

I assume you’ve listened to the new Kendrick album.
Yeah, it’s great. He’s great. What else would you expect from him? It’s his life, his passion. I’ve learned a lot from just being in tune with his music. Very once-in-a-lifetime type individual. But all those guys are really special. How long they’ve wanted and worked for something and persevered and not had to compromise. The artistic integrity.

I remember an interview with Earl where he was talking about Kendrick, how he’s so grateful that someone like that exists. Because Kendrick is there, Earl can just do his own thing.
Yeah. I can understand why he would say that. I can definitely understand why he would say that.

So you’ve spoken with Kendrick.
Yeah. I know him, I went to school where he grew up. I know a lot of people from the area. I don’t talk to people that I don’t want to speak to. That’s not how I live my life.

It seems like you’ve trained yourself to be self-sufficient as much as possible.
I’ve always been like that, I don’t … I make my music. We make our product.

You’re confident that the sound you’re making is not going to come from anyone else.
I know. No way possible. This is the first time I’ve been in complete control of my music. With Summertime ‘06, with Prima Donna, with Hell Can Wait, there were certain pigeonholes, I was at an age where I was fine with deferring. I don’t feel the need to defer to anyone anymore. I’m not a successful artist from a record-sales standpoint, from a pop culture, popularity, paparazzi standpoint.

You’re not unsuccessful, either, though.
But I’m not successful, I’m not a failure, but it’s not, I’m not … They’re not snapping pictures of us as we walk out of the grocery store. We’re not selling hundreds of thousands, we’re not getting plaques and wearing platinum, things like that. But we’re perfectly fine. I feel fine doing whatever I want to do. ‘Cause I know I’ll be able to handle what I have to handle.

Do you feel like people who get that kind of attention, at some level, wanted it?

And you, at no level, want any of that.
That’s not my thing. Nope. I’m not afraid of anything, but it’s not something I’m going for. I don’t even like the press. Not like in the sense of me doing it, I’m not a fan of watching the press. I don’t watch the news, I don’t read magazines, I’m not a consumer of press. You see a Billboard chart, I want to be on that. You see a shelf of albums, I want to be on that. You see a basketball team, I want to be on that. Cause you admire what it is. But I’ve never admired things of that nature, I guess. I definitely want to be on a basketball team one day. But the subject at hand? No.

I remember you saying, a little bit after the election, that you weren’t surprised that Trump won.
Yeah, I wasn’t. My grandma told me he was going to win. She always tells the truth.

And I remember before the election, reading an interview with Schoolboy Q, and he was basically saying he didn’t care who won. It seemed like many people who came from that working-class or poor background were already resigned to the fact that no matter which party wins the presidency, things were not going to get noticeably better or worse.
You got to understand, that for a 30-year span for Q, 60-year span for my mother, I don’t know if they’ve seen a lot change, if we’ve seen a lot change, so I do understand that standpoint. It’s to the point where you’re really like, it’s not my fight.

You’ve been into EDM collabs. You played some of them at Terminal 5, right?
I love Daft Punk. I grew up loving Daft Punk, N.E.R.D., Gwen Stefani. I like those sounds. Neptunes, Timbaland-type production, Missy Elliott. When I was a kid, Missy Elliott and Kanye.

Speaking of Neptunes, speaking of Pharrell, this is kind of a reach, but it does seem like there’s a bit of similarity between you and the kind of music Pusha T makes. Very precise, very condensed.
Yeah. I can see that. In the writing style.

How long can you keep this up? Just like, grinding out music.
I’m good for a minute. Life’s been worse. It doesn’t really bother me that much.

Would you ever want to do something different, like an art show?
I always want to do stuff different. As of right now, I haven’t really necessarily thought it out. We always want to do different things. That’s why we do music videos still when they don’t really matter anymore.

Some videos get tons of views.
Lot of successful songs don’t have music videos right now. Think of Lil Uzi Vert. I love that guy. I listen to that guy too. I forgot to say that earlier. He sounds like Panic! at the Disco. The way he sings is very reminiscent of that Panic! at the Disco, Plain White T’s, “Stacey’s mom has got it going on” era of rock music. I can appreciate that, very nostalgic.

A lot of younger rappers are open about being directly influenced by rock stars …
Well, no. A lot of them are copying other rappers, to be honest. But he is dead serious. It’s obvious in his music. They’re thinking of the idea of anarchy, but I can guarantee you Lil Uzi Vert was listening to a lot of Green Day. Had to be. Cause his music has the structure of those kinds of songs.

Exactly what it is. It’s great. I like it, I like pop-punk. Lot of people don’t; I like it.

You listened to a lot of Green Day yourself?
I fucking hate Green Day. Hate Green Day. I like Panic! at the Disco.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Vince Staples Talks Kendrick, Green Day, and Big Fish Theory