Vince Staples is a man of very few words.
Well okay, that's not entirely true. You listen to him in your daily life and one thing you can definitely say is the man will never shy away from speaking his mind. Just earlier this year he told you to get the fuck off [his] dick in every which way possible, and then he (deservedly) ethered R. Kelly at Coachella. Vince Staples the man is a masterful troll and always speaking truth to power, but Vince Staples the rapper isn't quite as loquacious.
By which we mean that his projects tend not to linger past the point where they overstay their welcome. Vince Staples the rapper is a scathing and incisive social critic who tends to leave you wanting more rather than giving you too much to digest. It's a dichotomy that you can witness at his shows: for instance, he always gives his fans the chance to purchase meet & greet passes. He'll meet & greet (and probably roast!) you before the show but won't say much beyond "Hi" and "Bye" at the start and end of his performance, other than rapping his tracks of course.
Let's see if we can't strike that perfect balance in this post here. As always, the rules stay the same: we run through Vince Staples's full discography and pick our favourite of each track number. No skipping and also no duplicate choice.
Again, please give our man Loogart a follow, for he's way too talented to make illustrations just for this tiny blog.
For all the talk about the brevity of Vince Staples projects, the man does tend to take his sweet time easing the listener in, with three first songs in his discography being little more than intro vignettes. Not so much with Fire, the first song from the very first Vince Staples album. As the literal first introduction into the man's universe, the track is a dope and efficient one as it includes every, erm, staple we've come to love from him: distorted and heavy production, a simple and catchy anthem-like chorus, and lyrics that lift plenty from Staples's daily or past life. You're told to be a good person as you grow up, to secure a place in Heaven; but if this world is any indication, Afro-Americans won't be going to Heaven anyway so what's the point? Why worry about the afterlife when you're just trying to survive as a 13-year-old running your home and hoping to get lucky, with girls and otherwise?
2. Lift Me Up
If you have a friend who's not a fan of Vince Staples yet, making him listen to Lift Me Up, perhaps his most iconic track, should turn him into one. It's a powerful tour de force, with a booming bass line and a beat full of melancholy, dullness and sorrow. It's the perfect playground for the rapper to pour his heart out, which Staples does as he raps as well as he ever has. Highlighting one rhyme over another would be foolish but for what it's worth "I need to fight the power but I need that new Ferrari" might as well be the central thesis of Vince Staples's music: you know you've got shit to do and better things to spend your money on and that you can't even afford it to begin with but, like, have you seen that car???
3. Norf Norf
If Lift Me Up is the man's most iconic track, then Norf Norf is probably the one song most would identify as his best ever? Something like that? Over three minutes and three seconds, Staples is as clear-eyed as ever and discusses the perils of daily life in Norf Side Long Beach, where you can do all you can to find the girl you like so long as you can stomach life on the corner and the streets. Staples, it turns out, has the temperament for it, having "never ran from nothing but the police" as he says on the chorus. But it's more weariness than pride speaking.
Of course it's impossible to discusses Norf Norf without touching on the "Christian Mom" rant that went viral in 2016: a white woman of Christian and traditional values became infamous after she made a video where she cried as she recited the lyrics to the song. Whereas most of us clowned her, Staples never took the bait and instead called for empathy as the woman in question had obviously misunderstood the song's context. He's the one living through the pain and misery every day, and he's the one calling for empathy for the woman who'd rather put her head in the sand and pretend his reality doesn't exist.
4. Hands Up
Remember that part where we explained that Staples was a scathing and incisive social critic? And that he rarely wastes words? Enter Hands Up, a song that might as well be the exact retort and counterpoint to the #AllLivesMatter or #BlueLivesMatter garbage. "North Division tryin' to stop my blackness," Staples raps to start the song, instantly making the endgame crystal clear. "Raidin' homes without a warrant, shoot him first without a warning. And they expect respect and non-violence, I refuse the right to be silent." Preach, young man.
5. Prima Donna
Prima Donna is the title track from Staples's 2016 EP of the same name, a short collection of songs that examine an aspiring rapper's eventual suicide. This song features A$ap Rocky on the chorus so its cool factor instantly jumps through the roof, but not that it ever needed the influx of brownie points. After reminding you in the first line that, again, he is a gangbanging Crip, Staples raps about this rapper who's seemingly on the very of a breakout but who realizes that while he might have successfully jumped through hoop after hoop after hoop in the streets, the music industry presents similarly challenging obstacles. And it's a world that's foreign to him, unlike the streets, that's why he asks (through A$ap on the chorus) if this is all real.
6. Street Punks
Here's the part where we mention that Staples turned to gangbanging in his youth because he "wanted to kill people," and that it's a lifestyle he hasn't completely left behind. Yep. And otherwise, if you believe in only one thing in this world, let that one thing be the bass line on Street Punks.
7. Yeah Right
This choice is ultimately an easy one. Yeah Right finds Staples at the top of his lyrical game and calling bullshit on everyone and everything, from rappers who rap about the lie of a life they supposedly lead to larger society's reliance and fixation on drugs and money. In the middle of the track, producers Flume and SOPHIE create an exquisite bridge where singer Kucka draws parallel between street gangs and the government, before a fiery verse from Kendrick Lamar brings things full circle. What a track.
8. Jump Off The Roof
On Jump Off The Roof, Staples takes an honest look at his vices and addictions, one borne from a sense of urgency and desperation. And that beat, my god is that beat haunting, heavy, majestic and intoxicating all at once.
9. Like It Is
If you're ever wondering where a song like Senorita is on this playlist, well let it be that it didn't make the cut because it's up against what is for our money the very best song of Staples's career. Because yes, if we've already identified the most iconic track (i.e. Lift Me Up) and the likely choice for best overall song (i.e. Norf Norf), then Like It Is his Staples's most underrated song. Over a stunded piano beat provided by No I.D. and DJ Dahi, one that opens with a vocal Andre 3000 and beat interpolation from DJ Drama's Da Art Of Storytelling Part 4 (seriously, read that part again), Staples goes to work.
Or rather, he tells it like it is and then how it could be. He tells how our society has left Staples and those like him and who look like him with a binary choice that's as somber as it is hopeless: maybe you feel like you gotta be the one to make it to heaven, but you know you can either kill or be killed. You're just a youngster, but you had no choice but to harden, and quickly. Like It Is sees Staples alternately rapping in his verses and singing in the hook. He even gives listeners a window into his train of thought, adding two mini-interludes that play like spoken words pieces on racism, classism and a whole bunch of other things. It's heartbreaking, and it forces you to consider empathy, if nothing else. Like It Is is perfect, it really is.
Coming where it does at the end of disc 1 of Summertime '06 and just after the monstrous Senorita, Summertime acts as a sort of detente, a calm after the dread and heaviness that preceded it. Staples will further jump right back in the misery and plight of daily life in gang-ridden North Long Beach, but first here he sings (SINGS!) about love in every which way possible: love for self, for one another, for a potential that could be, for what could have been but wasn't, for where we come from. Open up your heart, if we don't love then we fall apart.
There is no other Track No. 11 in the Vince Staples catalogue, but BagBak was always making the cut here regardless. Over a sprawling beat reminiscent of the best moments on Yeezus, Staples ponders the place of rap music in the greater world, one full of racism, gentrification and mass incarceration. BagBak is protest music, is what it is, and tell the president to suck a dick because we on now.
12. Rain Come Down
This song was the third single from Staples’s Big Fish Theory and also the first overt and obvious sign of the rapper’s blossoming (and now formal) partnership with the people of Sprite. It’s a good enough track, which borrows from a slew of musical influences and relies on a fun and sultry feature from Ty Dollar $ign. It reaffirms the need for balance in one's life, never falling too far on either side of morality. Don't drown in the brown, just drown in the sound.
And in the Sprite too, I guess.
What does it all mean?
While there are a good number of difficult choices, picking a favourite No. 2 track in Vince Staples is absolute hell. In fact, there's an argument to be made where the five No. 2 songs of his projects are five of the, what, eight greatest songs of his career? Still, this playlist wouldn't be complete without Lift Me Up, which more than deserves its spot.
For the purpose of this exercise, we're counting Summertime '06 as two separate discs. So far Staples has released the 7-track Hell Can Wait, the 7-track Prima Donna, the 12-track Big Fish... and the two-disc, or 22-track, Summertime '06. Since we're only picking one song of each number, seeing the double album as one long album would 1) makes this playlist much longer and 2) ensures that the 2nd disc of Summertime '06 gets tracks 13 to 22. Where's the fun in that?
Instead, we're upping the ante tenfold. And that's much more fun.
In conclusion? Well in conclusion, this playlist is really a pretty great album with a clear beginning, middle and a sort of resolution at the end, or at the very least a detente. Much like a typical Staples project, it's fairly short at 42 minutes, which gives you just enough incentive to sit through it in one sitting... and to start it all again right away. Also very much like a typical Staples project, it doesn't lack for moments of clarity and its brevity doesn't make it any less clever, penetrating and sharp. Most of all, it's damn excellent.