Paul Thompson has Paul Pierce on AIM.
Last summer (Summertime ’14), a Respected Rap Magazine flew me to Chicago so I could spend some time with Common. This was before the Oscar, but his life was already a blur of black SUVs and people who were paid to keep track of his schedule, people who inexplicably still used Blackberrys. He was darting from obligation to obligation, promoting a new album, prepping for Selma reshoots, choking back earth-toned smoothies or squares of what I could only describe to you as hardened paste.
The only time I saw him eat real food was when we stopped by his grandmother’s apartment. Surrounded by cousins who were optimistic about the Bulls and uncles who mocked him for coming away empty-handed at the BET Awards, Common smiled, laughed, gobbled collard greens and fried tomatoes and, finally, relaxed. Then he stood up, asked his grandmother to turn down the television, and did what he’d been waiting all day to do: he started rapping Vince Staples songs.
Staples is a rapper’s rapper, at least inside the booth. Sneering and economical, the 22-year-old from Long Beach packs color, detail, and menace into the nooks and crannies of each four-bar run (his narratives seldom stretch a full sixteen). As far back as the two-volume Shyne Coldchain mixtape series, his verses have been artful and technical, but never obviously so, and never in a way that didn’t serve the song. (See: “Nate”, “Trunk Rattle”, “Baron Davis”.)
At the time of the impromptu family reunion, Staples was working on Hell Can Wait. His debut EP on Def Jam—where he was and is studying under Common’s long-time friend and producer, No ID—would be built mostly on no-frills master classes, the natural, Technicolor endpoints of Coldchain. “65 Hunnid” and “Blue Suede” rattle and cackle. The themes that do run through the short tape (“Screen Door”’s section 8 extracurriculars, the morbidly prescient “Hands Up”) have the bite and clarity Com’s been searching for since the Gap ads started.
So, less than a year later, Vince is back with something that shouldn’t exist: a double-disc debut album. Summertime ’06 runs a little under an hour, so the audacious bit isn’t the length, but the scope. For an artist prone to monotone, a 20-track set with no famous guest appearances flies in the face of trends and conventional wisdom. But No ID, DJ Dahi, and Clams Casino have crafted for Vince a cold, desolate, industrial world that the MC populates with characters that get motivations, backgrounds, even tattoos in a dozen words and shootouts that resolve themselves in a bar or two. In the end, it isn’t surprising that Summertime ’06 is spaced out over two discs. It could have been three or four.
If you listen to people talk about Vince Staples, you’ll hear words like “stark”, “cold”, “unflinching”. And while his work definitely has these qualities, stopping the conversation here is dishonest, or at least reductive. Vince is exactly the same age as me, which is to say that in the summer of 2006, he hadn’t yet started high school. To pinpoint this year as the one that killed his innocence is telling, but he doesn’t dwell on the circumstances of his upbringing, nor does he hold them in opposition wealthier kids his age.
But make no mistake, this doesn’t mean his perspective is one isolated from the rest of the country. In fact, the first disc of Summertime ’06 argues the opposite: Vince is fascinated by, even obsessed with how he and his friends are seen by the proverbial Middle America. On the album’s first song, he raps, “Uber driver in the cockpit/ Look like Jeffrey Dahmer/ But he looking at me crazy when we pull up to the projects.” On “Jump Off the Roof,” he raps, “Pour a deuce up, and then start leanin’/ Trying to die higher than Pimp C.” But Vince Staples doesn’t want to die higher than Pimp C. He doesn’t even drink alcohol. He’s baiting you. He knows that’s what you expect him to say.
Or take any number of songs on the album’s first half. To a number, they’re lean, kinetic dispatches from the intersection of pop culture and Long Beach County politics. “Norf Norf” and “Birds & Bees” both wave guns and throw signs at the victims they know they’re supposed to.
When he does stray from sociology fully into street rap, he’s at his best. “Senorita”, which served as the album’s lead single (though you could hardly tell if you were monitoring radio), is positively vicious. “Fuck your dead homies/ Run your bread, homie/ Got some lead for me?/ I’m on Artesia/ Parked in my Beamer/ Bumping my own shit,” he raps, after a hook that scrapes together bars from Future’s “Covered N Money”. A poorly reviewed, largely forgotten leaked off Future’s sophomore album, Honest, “Covered N Money” is actually a frantic, paranoid song that conflates fame with persecution. A little over a year after Honest, Future is at his critical and commercial peak, poised to become one of the biggest rap stars in the world. Vince just keeps rapping.
Though it would seem impossible, the second disc moves at an even faster clip. There’s also a distinct change in tone: where the first half of Summertime ’06 examines young, Black Americans in the cultural landscape, the second takes place in the immediate. On “Get Paid”, he condenses the essential elements of a story into the words “four deep, five seats, three guns”. When he does zoom the lens outside of Long Beach, it’s plain, it’s cold, it’s biting. (From “Street Punks”: “You ain’t calling me collect and I ain’t pickin’ up the phone/ Got some homies from the set who ain’t never comin’ home”; from “C.N.B.”: “Keep your salutations, need my forty acres.”)
As stated, the album runs twenty tracks, but there are surprisingly few blemishes. The Joey Fatts- and Kilo Kish-featuring “Dopeman” could have been cut from the first side, the bloated “Might Be Wrong” from the second. (The news clips from the latter bolster the album’s anti-police through-lines could have been saved, but they don’t need to be their own song.)
But Vince Staples has crafted here the best double-disc album since Dipset’s Diplomatic Immunity, and, along with Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, m.A.A.d. city and YG’s My Krazy Life, one of the best debuts from Southern California in a decade.
The best song on Summertime ’06 doesn’t sound like a Vince Staples song at all. Tucked at the very end of the first disc is a po-faced love song called “Summertime”. The rapper croons and yearns and doesn’t quite get around to rapping; he instead slithers through loss, sex, early childhood in quick order.
“My teachers told me we was slaves
My mama told me we was kings
I don’t know who to listen to
I guess we somewhere in between.”
The track runs out, and the next kicks in. Vince knows you have an aux cord. You try to reconcile the love and the fatalism, the guns and the Playstation controllers. But there’s a gunshot. Then there are seagulls. There’s more ground to cover. Because this is Long Beach, and we don’t have time to just sit around.