Max Bell may or may not be wearing blue in his staff photo.
You shouldn’t have to watch your teenage friends die. You shouldn’t have to bury them in closed caskets. The process shouldn’t become so familiar that you wonder whether you’ll outlive the roses on their gravestones. Unfortunately, the best gangsta rap is born out of all that shouldn’t happen. So it goes on Hell Can Wait, the Def Jam debut EP from Vince Staples. It’s both war-torn reportage and a critique of all that caused the casualties. Flowers and close compatriots might’ve withered on the scorching Long Beach blocks, but he didn’t. He refuses the right to remain silent.
Staples never planned to rap. Raised with familial ties to gang-banging and street pharmacy, felonious acts were practically rite of passage. When turmoil forced him to leave home, he found himself literally sleeping in the studio of Odd Future’s Syd the Kid. The move proved the catalyst for his previously unintended rap career. After forging a kinship with Earl Sweatshirt, he dropped a deft and demented guest verse on Earl’s self-titled debut (“epaR”). When Earl vanished to Samoa, Staples’ auspicious feature and OF affiliation suddenly offered an attentive fan base.
While Staples’ first project, Shyne Coldchain Vol. 1, has merits, it also showed room for improvement. The lyrical content stuck closer to the gritty realism and glorified gang violence of its West Coast gangsta rap predecessors than OF’s Eminem-influenced shock fare. “Taxi” is the obvious exception, but Staples’ cadences and murderous monotone were clearly a direct result of his studio time with Earl. However, Staples’ next two mixtapes, Winter in Prague and the Mac Miller-produced Stolen Youth, both displayed tremendous growth. He’d excised much of Earl’s influence; his writing became sharper, more political, personal, and poignant. And, after rounding out 2013 with a show stealing verse on another Earl album (“Hive”), this year looked especially promising.
March’s Shyne Coldchain Vol. 2 was the partial fulfillment of that promise, a reintroduction for those who hadn’t followed the trail of shells ejected from his father’s revolver to the bough holding up the blue bandana noose. Over a barrage of suites from Evidence, Scoop DeVille, and No I.D. he split the difference between the best of Schoolboy Q and Kendrick Lamar. Like the former, he displayed reverence for the nightmares he survived and boasted about those he inflicted. Like the latter, he lamented the consequences — personal, societal, eternal – with vivid and incisive lyricism.
Unfortunately, Shyne Colchain Vol. 2 was overshadowed by adulation for Y.G.’s My Krazy Life. Still, the success of his Def Jam label mate didn’t halt Staples’ slow but steady drift to the edge of the mainstream. In July, he made the ironically hilarious transition from penning quips about Common’s disposition (“If you want some positivity go listen to some Common” – “Trigga Witta Heart”) and religious convictions (“…cousin Jerry had a rocket / Back when Common had you tryna read Qurans and go to college” – “Trunk Rattle”) to being the most prominently featured guest on the deluxe edition of Nobody’s Smiling.
While Staples was in top form on Common’s album, his features reminded you that the days of Ruthless and Death Row remain forever in the rearview. In the era of the navel-gazing sad boys, lucrative label deals for gangsta rappers are limited. Whether you’re from Compton, L.A., or Long Beach, your contract now comes with conscious concessions.
Thankfully, Hell Can Wait is not commercial Crippin’ for the turn-up. It is the second half of the aforementioned promise, a continuation and distillation of the themes and attitude displayed on Shyne Coldchain Vol. 2 with little genuflection at the altar of A&Rs and moneymen. Y.G. and DJ Mustard largely wanted to party to rubbery synths and 808 drums as sirens sounded around the corner; Staples can’t ignore all the flashing red lights might signify.
“If you listen to shit about niggas being in a position where they have no hope, there should be nothing at peace about that. There’s a way to do it to where it’s listenable and likable, but it shouldn’t just be some happy stuff,” he told Pitchfork earlier this year. “Every song on the radio right now is about selling cocaine and killing people, but that’s not what you hear from it, so in your head that becomes OK.”
On the largely featureless Hell Can Wait, nothing is “OK.” On opener “Fire,” drum fills ricochet with the speed and echo of semi-automatic rounds. Staples calculates everything from education to fornication with thoughts of the afterlife: “School couldn’t get me into heaven / and heaven couldn’t get me in a bitch bed.” By the middle of the track, fatalistic self-damnation becomes his mantra, the only means of mitigating past misdeeds and making it through the day.
The problems Staples presents mount as the EP progresses. The same can be said of the contradictions. The block is hot, but Staples is quick to play “gangsta God.” College was a possibility, but, like his father before him, he could also make money by selling glass to fiends. “Screen Door” opens with a nod to N.W.A., but the hook is an interpolation of Goodie Mob’s “Cell Therapy.” The trade isn’t a dismissal of his West Coast rap lineage, it’s another sign of his appreciation for rappers who expose harrowing realities without regard for radio. Bobby Johnson is not his O.G.
While nearly every song on this EP trumps most rap releases this year, singles “Hands Up” and “Blue Suede” are the most effective in displaying Staples’ abilities as a songwriter and the cognitive dissonance of his rhymes. The former is an eviscerating commentary on racial profiling and police brutality. Huey Newton references are tempered by taunts to all law enforcement. The hook is both succinct and deceptive. If you excise the words, “nigga freeze,” then it might sound like a rapper commanding his fans to raise their hands. The number of hands that don’t move at Staples’ shows will reflect the measure of their intelligence.
Meanwhile, Staples makes his case for the non-snitching prime suspect on “Blue Suede.” The beat is G-Funk meets acid-fried John Carpenter, with synths screaming and the low-end offering lysergic pulse. He mourns young graves while painting himself as the shooter (i.e. “Ask where he from then leave his dome roofless / Sweet chin music, kickback gruesome”). Staples has played many roles, but he’s never played the victim.
The sole track that smacks of capitulation to label demands is “Limos.” The beat sounds tailor-made for wheelchair Jimmy turned human emoji because “Trophies” producer Hagler Tyrant was behind the boards. (He also produced “Screen Door,” “Blue Suede,” and “Feelin’ the Love”). Yet, despite the beat, Staples articulates what he sees as the inherent problems of modern love, or lack thereof, with honesty and genuine emotion.
With Hell Can Wait, some of the specificity and more intricate lyrics displayed on Shyne Coldchain Vol. 2 have been lost in translation. But Staples has already proved that he can rap very well. This EP is an earnest attempt to make songs that reach those who aren’t annotating Rap Genius. For detractors of his delivery, Staples voice has moved beyond the monotone. The inflections are subtle, but they’re there. Whatever Staples lacks in charisma, he makes up for with gruesomely visceral quotes and ideas emotionally and intellectually stirring.
Yet there is a central question bubbling underneath Staples’ persistent and aggressive ambivalence: Have rap fans yet to figure out that gangsta rap should be instructive and not destructive, a cautionary tale and not an audible instruction manual? Last year the murder rate rose in Long Beach; over half of the homicides were gang related. For gangsta rap to remain authentic and relevant people must continue to die for their set; the police must continue to racially profile with extreme and violent prejudice; the vicious cycle of poor education and government assisted poverty (not living) prompting drug addiction/trafficking must not come to a halt. Staples’ is a product of this environment, and he clearly remains conflicted about working in the genre born out of it. While he doesn’t offer an answer for these ills, he ends his album with a prayer for forgiveness, the hope that his victory may mean more than just one man making it out of hell. Rap was never the plan, but it may be his redemption.