By Sean Avery
I was sitting alone on the side of the stage playing Pokemon X, when Vince Staples and his entourage walk in. I immediately closed my 3DS and Google searched “grey supreme jacket”, in attempt to find what Vince was wearing (sadly, I didn’t find his jacket in my results). Vince started his soundcheck, and this old white dude who’d been yelling from the balcony of the Sett, a restaurant and venue inside UW-Madison Union South, leans over the railing and says “Hey! Can you keep it down?” Vince, who’s checking “Senorita”, stops his verse, looks up and replies, “No, thank you”, then keeps rapping. The night was filled with moments like this; Vince’s stage persona perfectly matched his Twitter and interview personality. If you saw his Twitter back and forth with Wings Over Madison (Vince’s tweets are now deleted, otherwise I would post them) you know how Vince is. If you didn’t, let me tell you: unapologetic, intensely sarcastic, and liable to go from slightly confrontation to slandering without so much as a pause.
When 9:00pm rolls around, Vince isn’t in the Sett anymore, but all of my friends are. We’re upstairs in the dressing room, which is a catered Union South conference room. It’s CRASHprez (Michael), Kenny Hoopla (Kenneth), LOTF (Daniel), *hitmayng (Ian), Malik, and Niko (both CRASHprez and LOTF had sets that night, and although I won’t get into them during this review, I will say that both artists gave dynamic and stand-out performances; and shoutouts to Trapo!). Ian heads out the room to do a DJ set before Daniel goes on, and I end up on stage with Kenny and Malik, just raging. By the end of the night, between sitting stage side during my friend’s sets and dancing on stage before and after their sets, I would have been happy whether or not Vince had played!
But alas, Shyne Coldchain put on a strong show! In this review, I’ll be focusing more on Vince’s mixtape and album work as both literary texts and musical recordings, because, well, rap songs are literary texts and musical recordings. Later in the review I will get to his live performance that night, but for the sake of nostalgia, and also to gain some perspective, let’s go back to Vince’s first mixtape, Shyne Coldchain Vol. 1. Vince didn’t perform any songs from that mixtape, but Michael asked him to do our favorite song, “102”. Vince said the speakers didn’t sound right so he didn’t feel comfortable playing it, but he really enjoyed the sentiment. In my opinion, S.C.V.1. is Vince’s best display of lyricism. In the song I mentioned earlier, “102”, Vince’s first bars are: “I want the life of a legend/ black heart and matching weapons/ got a thing for aesthetics/ straight shooter like Redick”. Upon first hearing this, I really appreciated how he grouped together words that all ended with hard consonant sounds, and how “legend” and “weapons” have unstressed end syllables while “aesthetics” and “Redick” have stressed end syllables. But what made Vince fascinating was his delivery: he was laid back, maybe even bored, as if the violence he was subtly depicting was commonplace, or even worse, so normal that it stirred no emotions in him; “I want the life of a legend” sounds drowsy, like Vince woke up while saying the line in his sleep. It was this delivery, among other things, that drew many listeners to Vince Staples, but I believe it is also this delivery that repelled potential listeners. On Summertime 06, the debut studio double disc album Vince released June 30th, 2015, on Def Jam Recordings and ARTium Recordings, Staples is much more vocally provocative. We hear him crooning, yelling, and talking, alongside his characteristic mellow rap delivery. Before Summertime ’06, you had to listen to Vince rap about the Crips of Long Beach, CA. Now you can dance to it, and that’s a big difference.
Just check out “Norf Norf”, “Get Paid”, or “Surf ft. Kilo Kish”; Vince has mastered both rapping about gang life and selling it. His production, courtesy of Clams Casino, Christian Rich, and No I.D. (No I.D. has producing credits on 14 of the album’s 20 songs; his sound and vision are responsible for much of the album’s danceability), creates a musical palette that fits right in with Vince’s West Coast contemporaries. Usually I would condemn commercializing something as racially charged as gang crime, but Vince does it in a way that doesn’t feel belittling or appear fictitious. When he raps “I ain’t never ran from nothin’ but the police” on the hook of “Norf Norf”, it’s delivered in the same monotone voice that governs the majority of his body of work. However his verses, although still in the same tone, contain subtle vocal shifts which help better communicate how Vince is feeling. Vince extends certain sounds to give the words a more musical quality; “My Crips lurkin’ don’t die tonight/ I just wanna dance with you baby”, unlike the last set of lyrics I referenced as a text, there is no intricate rhyme here. Instead, in the recording, Vince says “tonight” with a downward breath, like a sigh, and “baby” with an upward breath, like an exclamation. This sort of emotional expression was not present in Vince’s earlier work, and it makes the songs much more exciting and accessible. The listener can hear how Vince feels by the way he throws his voice, whether up or down, whether he’s pulling back or gaining momentum and volume. Later in the same song, he personalizes crime and violence in his hometown, “Knowin’ change gonna come like Obama and them say/ But they shootin’ everyday ’round my mama and them way”; again Vince uses juxtaposition to draw in the listener, ending the first line like a snide remark, while the second ends as if Vince is yelling for attention. Vince’s presentation of Long Beach, California is stark and honest, and thus feels authentic. It’s difficult to challenge or doubt a young Black man who narrates death in his community with such a neutral tone.
One thing that disturbed me as Vince took the stage for Madison’s almost entirely white audience was that all of us, Black bodies included, were essentially about to be dancing to death. I don’t mean dancing until we all died, I’m not being that dramatic, I’m saying we were all there to rock out to an artist whose music primarily tells stories about gang violence and homicide. The crowd reacted very strangely to Vince. If they knew the song or not, they danced, there was not a stiff moment once he touched the stage. No other performer that night received that sort of treatment. As a young Black man who is also a performer, I often think if artists I like are thinking about who is consuming their art. Vince’s lyrics on “Lift Me Up” directly address the tension between his lyrical content and the racial experiences of the average Vince Staples consumer, “All these white folks chanting when I asked ’em where my niggas at?/ Goin’ crazy, got me goin’ crazy, I can’t get wit’ that/ Wonder if they know, I know they won’t go where we kick it at”. Vince is definitely thinking about race in rap music, and has no problem talking about it inside the music. He’s built a brand off unabashedly telling his personal experiences; for some his lyrics may feel like extremities or tragedies, but he doesn’t allow the listener space to push back against what he claims because he tells his stories so explicitly, and like I said earlier, his new album often has you turning up before you really tune into the lyrics.
As for his actual performance, it was good, not the great, but good. I think both LOTF and CRASHprez had more energy during their sets, and took more risks. I disapprove of rappers using backing tracks outside of their hooks, which Vince did a few times. But otherwise his energy was high. He was cracking jokes, and he spoke to the audience about college and Wisconsin (what better way to engage college students at University of Wisconsin?) and his DJ was a solid hypeman, picking up whatever words Vince couldn’t. Vince’s live vocals were consistent with his studio vocals. I didn’t notice him missing anything I heard on the recorded songs, however consistent is not parallel. On songs like “Senorita”, Vince hit every flow that was necessary to maintain the tempo and energy of the song. His stage lights alternated between half house, and a spotlight on stage for theatrical effect on more personal songs such as “Like It Is”. He even came out for an encore after the audience demanded more, where he performed “Blue Suede” a favorite from his “Hell Can Wait” ep.
Overall, Vince went in. I was proud, and literally jumping all night. More so than giving a high-quality performance, he gave a heartfelt performance. There was not a moment on stage where he seemed to be acting out what he rehearsed. He was very comfortable and let his mood dictate his stage presence, a natural process which I respected. Staples gives me some hope for authenticity in commercial rap, and remains on the list of rappers I have high expectations for, and think highly of. On a scale of Ember (1 flame) to Inferno (5 flames) VINCE STAPLES w/ CRASHprez and Lord of the Fly gets a… Flamethrower (3 flames)!
Outside of being a contributing writer for the Black Voice, Sean Avery is a poet and rapper. His work has been featured on Buzzfeed and Blavity, and published in Wisconsin People & Ideas as well as Illumination, the Undergraduate Journal of Humanities. He is an English Creative Writing major at the University of Wisconsin – Madison, and his work embraces both his imagination and his journey towards defining his own Black masculinity.