Confounding. That’s how I describe Vince Staples after hearing his Microphone Check interview, reading a piece on him from Spin, and listening to his début double-album, Summertime ’06. The young Long Beach, California rapper succeeds at defying my expectations so often that I still haven’t fully wrapped my head around him and his music, even after trying for weeks.
Vince caught my ear last year when he almost single-handedly made Common’s Nobody’s Smiling worth listening to. After that, I dug into his Hell Can Wait EP, and pegged him as a reality-focused gangsta rapper. And while that conclusion still seems correct when judging Summertime ’06, I can’t stop feeling like I’m missing something. In a nutshell, this album is about the negative life he was living at that time, and his recognizing the societal forces that made him that way. But I wouldn’t say that it tells the story of that epiphany, especially not in any clear narrative fashion. And it doesn’t offer any grand message that I can discern. Vince seems to simply say “this is life for me and people like me,” and leaves things exactly there.
There’s a faint hope for greater, strongest on Lift Me Up and Like It Is, but fatalism ultimately rules this album and Vince’s worldview. At various times, he directly ties his lifestyle to those of his ancestors, such as on Birds & Bees, when he says “I’m a gangsta like my daddy,” meaning that he had no other choice but to emulate the example he saw growing up. What’s most interesting about this album is that everything, like that line, is stated as clear fact. Very little judgment exists, which may make the album feel shallow or celebratory, like most other gangsta rap pieces out there. But I believe Vince’s stark descriptions are what separates his music from others’. Vince doesn’t revel in negativity, he simply tells the story because he lived it. There’s no pseudo-woeful regretting alongside larger-than-life boasts, instead there’s an unmistakable sorrow in this music.
Even on Norf Norf, whose hook almost feels like a party when Vince yells “Norf side, Long Beach!”, I actually get the feeling that Vince feels trapped by this life. He’s said before that where he’s from has made him what he is, so maybe his yelling “Norf side” is not just repping his hood but also a firm explanation of the cause for all bad deeds he commits in the song’s verses. The video reinforces that feeling, showing Vince being arrested, booked, and walked into jail, all while straight-faced rapping about his criminal life.
I think this simplicity is what’s so perplexing for me. I’ve been spoiled by rappers who clearly have a message, who are either in love with the gangsta life or are describing it while providing strategies for or at least hope for ending it. Hell, I’m not sure that Vince even believes in solutions. Instead of showing his younger self as a character to be understood but still very much judged for his misdeeds, he’s merely laid out for us to observe. He’s addicted to drugs and sex, as seen on Jump Off the Roof, but those vices aren’t used as excuses for his behavior. He recognizes racism as a huge influence on his life on CNB, saying:
Why they hate us? Why they want to rape us for our culture?
They greet, defeat us, bleed us, then they leave us for the vultures
They break the brilliant off with millions, tryna to break their focus
More tan the man, the more alone and hopeless
But this is before starting the hook with “I wake up feeling like I am the coldest nigga breathing.” That self-destructive confidence is being tied to racism, but without the call to action for ending racism, which is what I expected to hear. And, wanting a clear narrative break from the gangsta posturing of the earlier songs, I’d expect society-blaming songs like this to solely make up the end of the album, indicating that Vince actually did have an epiphany when recognizing these forces at work. And that is somewhat how this track list is structured. But he muddles the narrative in a much more realistic manner. Racism is also discussed on Lift Me Up, which resides at the beginning of the album. And right before CNB, which is near the end of the album, Vince and A$ton Matthews talk gang life on Hang N’ Bang. Instead of keeping things neat, these sequencing choices are probably a better reflection of the real change that Vince experience. What I mean is that people don’t usually make clean life changes, instead, their thinking and behavior move towards their goal in spurts, with backslides, and often out of sync with each other. So it makes sense that the same Vince who still reps his Crip set also sees that racism created the poverty that made that choice for him. This is the beginning of change, not the aftermath when that change can be neatly summarized from a safe distance.
Vince, in the process of changing, hopes for a better life, and some sort of salvation, on Like It Is, without seeming to know how to get there. His circumstances have placed him here, and he knows that those in power could help, but he also knows that they don’t understand his life at all:
I been through hell and back, I seen my momma cry
Seen my father hit the crack then hit the set to flip a sack
I done seen my homies die then went on rides to kill ’em back
So how you say you feel me when you never had to get through that?
We live for they amusement like they view us from behind the glass
No matter what we grow into, we never gonna escape our past
So in this cage they made for me, exactly where you find me at
And then, ending the album with a snippet that’s almost a cruel joke of a backslide, Vince raps on ’06 while robbing people, but static cuts him off mid-verse. My theory is that the people he’s robbing are the ones watching him “from behind the glass”, but maybe I’m just vindictive?
So this is the clearest point that I can find in Summertime ’06: displaying, in stark reality, this life that’s totally foreign to the rest of America. I’m not sure that Vince believes this album will actually bring greater understanding, let alone any more material change. The people who need to be reached are probably the exact people least likely to listen to an honest hip-hop album by a young Black kid who grew up poor and says “crip” in many of his tweets. But maybe the point is to try?
- Norf Norf
- Jump Off the Roof
- Like It Is
*I really wondered whether this review even needed a score. Much like Kendrick’s To Pimp A Butterfly, unpacking this album was a fascinating but tedious task, because the music is not usually much fun to play. It includes trap sounds and lazy singing and other stylistic choices that are probably more palatable to newer hip-hop fans than they are to my east coast old head tastes. So I had to focus on what was being said, rather than enjoying the songs over and over and appreciating the words as they filter into my consciousness. And it’s 20 songs long, which might be acceptable because these songs are usually short, but there’s too many tracks about gangsta life. That point was already made halfway through the album. All that said, the lyrical content of the album is beyond excellent, which is why the review focuses on that, and why the score is so high even with these complaints.