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'I'm Not Trying To Fit Within Any World': Vince Staples On Newfound Creative Freedom

Vince Staples
Zamar Velez
Courtesy of the artist
Vince Staples

Vince Staples says he had never heard the three-word phrase "Northside Long Beach" in pop culture before he said it on his 2015 single "Norf Norf."

"As far as music and media and films, I never had really seen any reference to where I grew up at," Staples said in a recent interview. "So it means a lot to me, obviously, to do that."

Six years on from that single, Staples' career is in a very different place: He's released three more albums. He's working on a show for Netflix. He's made it, financially. But his home base hasn't changed much; he's still living close to where he grew up. It's where his family is. It's where the things he knows are. "I don't go to Los Angeles," he says. "I don't live in Hollywood. I don't live in Malibu."

On his new, self-titled album, out today, Staples is still writing about North Long Beach — re-examining his upbringing to find new lessons, reflecting with a deepened perspective on the power of his relationships — and the extent to which the events of childhood have lasting effects. It's self-titled, in part, because Staples says it's the clearest expression yet of who he is. In his previous work, Staples spoke about those themes against a backdrop of production choices that offer commentary of their own. But the sound of Vince Staples doesn't distract from the concise and powerful writing that's always characterized his work, giving the listener no choice but to sit in the experience Staples is narrating and feel it.

"With music, you're telling your life story, if you approach it the way that I approach it," he says. "And there's only one life story, you know what I mean? I haven't lived several lives."

Staples says that when he made this album, he felt a kind of artistic freedom he hadn't experienced since his early mixtapes, when there was less pressure on his music career. He says the key to that freedom was a sense of emotional peace — one that allowed him to make the music he wanted to make, instead of adjusting his sound to fit whatever was next in his career.

"No one comes and tells you that, 'Oh, you have to do this, you have to do that,'" Staples says. "But coming from where you come from and having this [mindset] of, 'I have to make it out. I have an opportunity. Let me not mess it up.' I think that does it a lot."

It's a somewhat surprising statement coming from Staples — not because that pressure is hard to imagine, but because Staples' albums have never seemed to chase a kind of mainstream or radio-friendly aesthetic. His debut double album Summertime '06 was anything but easy to digest: Staples and a star-studded cast of producers worked with everything from beach sounds to gunshots to aggressive snares to the piano, creating a cinematic journey through the summer of 2006, when Staples says his youth was stolen from him. On 2017's Big Fish Theory, meanwhile, Staples raps over an industrial soundscape that he told NPR should have qualified him not only for the Grammy Awards for best rap album and album of the year, but also for best electronic album and best alternative album. And while his 2019 album FM! may have used the popular radio show Big Boy's Neighborhood as a framing device, the album actually reads as a kind of commentary on how Black art is consumed by the mainstream, rather than a strategy for getting played on mainstream radio.

It was these choices, the cultural critic Timmhotep Aku says, that earned Staples a kind of "cult fan base," as he became known for experimenting with sound and repeatedly pulling it off. He built an audience that way, instead of through hit singles.

"He's never had a huge breakout hit on his own. He's never had ... a platinum album," says Aku. "But yet he is revered by so many different people, from different walks of life, who are into different types of music."

It would be easy to interpret these sonic choices as a rejection of mainstream expectations and an expression of Staples' true taste — which, perhaps, they were. But even from the time he made Summertime '06, Staples says there was a certain sense of pressure, or constraint, that came from the sheer star power he was working with.

"You can't get these No I.D. beats and these DJ Dahi beats on your first project and not use all of them, you know what I mean?" he says, "which kind of limits the ability to create freely, because you feel held onto things that may or may not necessarily fit where you are in life."

And he says Big Fish Theory, whose electronic sound was the boldest and most adventurous departure from his previous work, was also created during a phase in his career where he was catering his sonics to his schedule, trying to make something that would complement the rock and alternative bands he was paired with on the road.

"We're doing festivals with LCD Soundsystem and opening up for James Blake and Bon Iver ... that's how you get a Big Fish Theory," says Staples. He said one of the questions on his mind while putting that album together was, "What can I make that will fit within this world?"

But as he was putting together this latest album, Staples says something changed: "At this point," he says, "I'm not trying to fit within any world."

The resulting album, produced entirely by Staples' friend and longtime collaborator Kenny Beats, lets Staples' writing shine against beats that — not to diminish them — are simply less of a main character. Instead of teasing out tension and meta-commentary through sound — like on Big Fish Theory, where he placed lyrics like "How I'm supposed to have a good time when death and destruction's all I see?" against an up-tempo dance beat — the beats on Vince Staples set the stage for the listener to sit more exclusively in Staples' lyrics. And there's plenty of tension to explore within his words alone.

While Staples writes about romantic love on this album — as on all his others — the one relationship that comes to the forefront is his relationship with home. On opening track "Are You With That," Staples says he "won't forget that s*** I saw in my past." It's a line that sets up the rest of the record, where Staples explores the people, places and experiences that shaped him. "When I see my fans, I'm too paranoid to shake their hands," Staples raps on "Sundown Town," right after he describes the housing insecurity he faced as a young person. As he does in much of his work, Staples describes the lack of safety he felt and still feels — but he also won't let the listener believe the album describes a tragedy or some simple narrative about the "bad" place that he got out of. After all, he still lives there.

"It's not what you think," he writes on "The Shining." "I could be gone in a blink / I don't want to leave."

"A lot of the time, we watch these movies and we listen to these songs and see all these other things on [the] news, and we think that you're walking into a war zone when you walk into these communities that we speak about," says Staples. "But no, it's just a place. All places have people and all people have emotions. So everything that falls within that, I've dealt with."

The song "Take Me Home" is perhaps the album's deepest exploration of these emotions. It features Fousheé on the hook, referencing The Wizard of Oz: "Take me home like I clicked my shoes." Over the romantic sound of Spanish guitars, Staples tells a story about a fraught amorous relationship together with a story about a fraught relationship with home and his past.

"I don't want to rebound," he says on the track. "I just want to sleep sound ... don't want to dream 'bout this s*** I done did."

The pull towards home doesn't come without resentment ("been all cross this Atlas but keep coming back to this place 'cause they trapped us"), but the message beneath it is that the author wouldn't be writing this without an unconditional commitment to both the place and the people who live there. The album contains voicemails from both his mother and his best friend Pac Slimm, a reminder of the relationships that shape him.

If the point of this album was clarity, Staples picked the right producer for it, says Aku.

"I think producers are really key to the story of [Staples'] evolution," says Aku. "There's a versatility and a malleability to how Kenny creates that allows [Staples] to get his vision out the way he wants."

Kenny Beats, who also worked with Staples on FM!, wrote in an emailed statement that "there is no one in the world who thinks or makes music the way Vince does. Talking with him can feel like being face to face with your conscience."

And it's Kenny's beats — accessible and catchy, using vocal samples to draw in the listener — that allow Staples to be heard clearly. These kinds of musical choices, Aku says, "could be [Staples] presenting himself and saying, 'I'm a really funny dude. I'm really interesting, I have these off-the-cuff takes, I'm very straightforward — but at the same time, like, I'm f******* dead nice. Listen to what I'm saying, because I'm actually saying some s***.'" Aku calls this "the throughline of his whole career."

"He's always saying some s***," Aku says — whether that's reflecting on his feelings about Christianity, exploring his relationship with his father, talking about his set in Long Beach or discussing his trust issues in romantic relationships.

Staples says last year was one of his most prolific: He estimates he made between 180 and 200 songs. Most will stay in the vault, and some will go on another forthcoming album, which he's slated to release in 2022.

But it only took him around six to eight sessions with Kenny Beats to write and record Vince Staples, he says. While his voice is clearer than ever on this new album, he says it's part of an ongoing effort to ensure that his visions are "coming to fruition without a lot of outside deterrence." But overall, his career goals haven't changed.

"It's mostly just what's going to make sure that I'm OK, essentially," he says. "How do I make sure that my family is good, that I'm good? Those are the things I really care about. I don't really care about a lot of accolades or I don't care to be the biggest, the best. That kind of stuff doesn't move me."

Staples says he has "honestly never had a mission as an artist." But when he interviewed the artist Mereba for Interview Magazine in the spring, he began one of his questions by describing an ideal artistic space that feels relevant to this latest work: "Freedom and peace of mind give you the ability to create with intention, and intention is what touches people."

So what about Staples? Did he find the peace of mind he needed to create with intention this time?

"I would say that I was able to do that in ways that I wasn't able to before," he answers. "I landed in a pretty good place, all things considered."

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jenny Gathright