The Tao of Vince Staples
Photography by James W Mataitis Bailey
Vince Staples isn’t scared of much. In “Smoke and Retribution”, his latest release with Flume and Kučka, as he spits pensive couplets against Flume's emotive, jagged sonic backdrop, the energy is undeniable. It's as though we’re hearing a rapper go Super-Saiyan before our very ears. An artist getting stronger. A young man growing up.
There’s a sense that Vince Staples has always been older than his years. Both on record and in interviews, his cerebral, emotionally intelligent way of conveying words and ideas has impressed critics, journalists and fans so much that he’s beginning to garner a young lion status among Hip-Hop heads. His debut album was met with a frenzied response from fans and critics eagerly searching for a new rap star - one who breaks loose from the weary blueprints of commercial, media-savvy, over-saturated gangster rap, and gives Hip-Hop an undiluted dose of raw feeling.
I’m given the privilege of a lengthy phone call with the 22-year-old rapper, while he waits to soundcheck for a tour date in Iowa – “the cradle of civilization”, he calls it. I laugh tell him that I thought the Middle East was regarded as the cradle of civilization. He laughs and reinforces his statement. “Nah. It’s Iowa.”
I come to the interview armed with questions about America’s political landscape, and how his work fits into it. I want to hear his views on the presidential race. Which artists does he admire? Who would he have over for dinner? What situations in his youth informed his creative process? Middle America has just terrified us Europeans by allowing Donald Trump to storm Super Tuesday with his army of blackshirts. So I decide to go in big. What would President Staples' America look like? His response is simple and disarming:
'It's not my right to control the lives of others.’
Fair point. So I ask him if he thinks America is in trouble, and he responds like a game of Wack-a-Mole.
‘I don’t know if America is the problem. I think people are the problem.’
The thing with Vince Staples is that clichés elude him. As with his music, his responses seem to take a sideways route. More scenic, difficult at times, but ultimately more rewarding. Over the next 45 minutes, he thinks deep, answers considerately, turns questions back to me, and muses on his own personal philosophy during the spaces between questions. He holds conversation like a person who knows enough, but still seems willing to learn. There’s a lot on his mind. Yet he doesn’t try to force any of it upon me, the way that so many artists, desperate to convey their manifestoes, are apt to do. As with his lyrics, he speaks in subtleties. Tip toeing around grand issues, and edging towards profound pieces of insight, his speech is still peppered with the thoughtful pauses, and earnest admissions of “I don’t know”.
In our increasingly restless cyber-climate, where everyone is adamant to express opinions on everything, it’s refreshing to hear an artist who can speak so authentically, and admit that sometimes he simply doesn’t have an answer. Vince’s surrenders remind me of how young he is - a fact that’s easy to forget, given his maturity, confidence, humour, and seeming self awareness.
He’s lived a full life so far, but seems reluctant to talk about it in detail - perhaps because it’s been the focal point of so many previous interviews. Thirsty journalists have clawed away at details of his experience growing up around gang culture, feeding it right back into the multi-million-dollar gangster rap meat grinder. Of course, we all appreciate artists who have struggled. Artists who have lived the things we haven’t, and generously relay them to us. But Vince sidesteps the inclination to draw distinctions between his past experiences and the music he now makes.
“When people tell me my album is art, I’m like ‘no, it’s not - it just wasn’t your reality.’”
Well aware of the widespread consumer fetish for gangsterism and criminality in rap music, Vince is quick to point out the hypocrisy of our cultural fascination with extreme wealth, and its link to badly behaved rappers, explaining “Capitalism is learned behaviour. Money is a stress reliever. Something we feel we need to make so that we can mean something.”
To him, his lyrics only become “art” through the eyes of someone who has never experienced the things he has. To him, it’s just truth. And truth doesn’t have a price tag: ”Being rich won’t necessarily get you a spot in the history books. What if Michael Jackson never made any money? Would we care? Vincent Van Gogh was never in the history books because he was rich.”
Placing disparate creative figures like Michael Jackson and Van Gogh next to one another seems like a good jumping off point for evaluating Vince’s output so far. To me it seems that his work moves beyond genre. It’s music, sure. It’s Hip-Hop, to be precise. But above all, I’d have to disagree with him and say that it is art. In three dimensions. And great artists don’t have any regard for genre. In fact, he’s often asked, with a mixture of reverence and suspicion, about his allusions to other genres. His last album’s Joy Division and Suicidal Tendencies references got music critics all hot, wet and curious. Though it’s shocking to many patronizing journalists that a young rapper would take influence from anything outside the typical ‘rap canon’, Staples sees no particular significance in his appreciation of music other than Hip-Hop.
“When it comes to rap, we generalise so much about what we expect to hear - you have the ‘gangster’ rappers, and you have the ‘conscious’ rappers. But in other genres, people are just allowed to be themselves.”
It’s true. Nobody makes a fuss when The Horrors say that they’ve been listening to J Dilla. And Vince’s focus on the notion of ‘being one’s self’ is pretty apt. At a time when scrolling through your Instagram feed for 30 seconds is guaranteed to reveal a cacophony of inspirational quotes, pop psychology truisms, and tin can spirituality, it would seem that we’re all grasping at the elusive notion of ‘individuality’. But the message can seem forced and insincere when it’s embedded in a drip feed of mirror selfies and box fresh Air Jordans on self-conscious feet. Vince’s apparent dedication to being himself has a gravity which is backed up by the confidence and emotional texture of his last album. The ability to convey anger, lust, nostalgia, vulnerability, and intellect so fluidly is a skill that most songwriters spend a career trying to achieve, if they ever get there.
Taking into account his bold defiance of death in the lyrics to “Smoke & Retribution”, I ask Vince if there is anything that he is scared of, and he responds with “the only thing I really fear is being like other people. Being like those people who fear being themselves.” It seems that Vince has no plans to fall in line with anybody’s expectations other than his own.
In one of many conversational segues, we find ourselves musing on the nature of regret. In short, we conclude that it’s pointless, because, as Vince points out, “life is a regrettable situation”, so everything after that fact is a bonus. We talk very little about Hip-Hop, and even less about his music. When I ask about his creative process, how he chooses beats to rap over, and how he came about finding the distinct sound of his last album, Vince is straightforward; “These just happen to be the sounds that make sense to me. That’s just me trying to make sense of my experience.” It’s not exactly gunpowder for an in-depth musical analysis. But like his lyrics, it’s an honest and direct statement of truth. Vince won’t draw any distinction between his musical output, and that of anybody else.
So our conversation doesn’t conform to the archetypal conventions of an artist talking to a music journalist. There are no attempts from him to namedrop influences, or shoehorn deep meaning into the work he’s created - he doesn’t try to convince me that he’s a genius, or that he’s talented, or that he’s anything special at all. He doesn’t try to charm me.
There’s no sense, during our conversation, of his ego creeping in and trying to do PR work. And perhaps that’s what makes him so beguiling. In a culture where social media paranoia and celebrity fetishism reign supreme, where we increasingly try to construct self esteem on a basis of how others view us, Vince doesn’t seem to want validation, or glory. There’s a sense that he’s somehow transcended that. A sense that he’s standing in the doorway to the groaning orgy of youth culture, quietly observing, comfortable with his clothes on.
I ask him why he started making music, and he doesn’t tell me. Instead, he points out that “nobody asks the bum on the corner who sings why he’s making music”. It’s a good point. It’s an artist’s success which leads us to ask questions about what their motivations are. But ultimately, Vince’s motivations don’t seem all that different from any other person who decides to put words down on paper. I would propose that the difference is the result, which, in the case of Summertime 06, was pretty profound. But he seems comfortable enough not to monumentalize his creative leanings as anything out of the ordinary.
I ask him about spiritual inclinations. His lyrics often make reference to notions of a higher power, of something sublime beyond the veil of reality. But then I’ve seen him talk in interviews about his disdain for religion, so I’m interested to reconcile these two disparate strands of Staples-ism. I ask if he engages with spirituality in any capacity. “Um... yeah. I guess”, he replies. There’s a silence. “I don’t know yet. But there’s something out there.”
I’m reminded, in moments like this, that Vince is a young man, just figuring things out as he goes along. It’s easy to forget, when talking to him, that in spite of his apparent wisdom and well adjusted attitude, he’s just turned twenty-two and is very capable of admitting that he doesn’t have all the answers. It’s that juxtaposition of deep intellect and raw vulnerability that makes great poets. The ability to know and not know, at the same time. The sparks that fly when those cogs turn in unison are what creates great art. In Vince’s case, whether or not he believes he makes “art”, I’d posit that those cogs are turning regardless, and the sparks are flying out at an increasing intensity.
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