Ralph Waldo Emerson gave shape to the world’s “three children.” In “The Poet,” he breaks down the universe into those who Know, those who Do, and those who Say. “These three are equal,” the transcendentalist writes, though he’s clearly rooting for the Sayers. After all, that’s his home team. They’re poets by definition: sensual, absorbent, imaginative, and painfully present.
Poets historicize in all the ways historians fail to. They acknowledge a spiritual void without rushing to fill it, which makes them the only group that stands a chance at holistically defining an epoch.
In his 19th century moment, Emerson had his own Sayers to look to: Coleridge, Douglass, Wordsworth, Whitman, etc. But who dares to define our moment? This calendar year can only offer its bleak condolences to a gaping hole in the EU, the last of American integrity (which Ryan Lochte probably squandered back in Rio) and the loved ones of 843 people killed by U.S. police officers since Jan. 1. Who steps up to speak of 2016, rather than cancel it altogether?
There’s Solange, Kanye, Mitski, and others who managed to pull us out of banality, three or four minutes at a time. YG could be a Sayer, as “FDT” scores ongoing protests of the president-elect nationwide. We’ve got Kevin Morby, too, with his ode to Freddie Gray and victims of police violence on the choir-backed “Beautiful Strangers.”
But Vince Staples was historicizing the first week of November months before it imploded. His recent EP, Prima Donna, goes to show how history is often bleak and rarely poetic—all the more reason for poetry to be historic.
Take “War Ready,” fueled by an “ATLiens” sample and Staples’ succinct worldview: “Heaven, hell, free, jail, same shit / Country jail bus, slave ship, same shit.” He tells a good story. They’re not easy to forget, but that’s how history is made.
At the end of a conference room table, Staples slides his glasses off and on again. Three feet before him, a couple guys hook up a PS4 to a mounted flat-screen so we can play Watch Dogs 2, a role-playing video game set in some reproduction of the Silicon Valley. The sequel’s soundtrack includes “Little Bit of This,” a collaboration by Staples and GTA—hence the 60-inch centerpiece framing our conversation.
In the game, players take on the role of Marcus Holloway, a hacker fighting against a corrupt surveillance institution. I stare into the screen’s silent noise as it boots up, racking my brain for wisdom from years of Big Brother reruns. All I can remember are the PB&Js. Once it’s ready, Staples scrolls through different virtual settings—a parking lot, a residential road, a dock spotted with sail boats. Below is an edited version of our conversation, in which he wavers between a commentary on the game’s reality and a commentary on our own. The two coincide throughout. —Cory Lomberg
Are you doing okay in the wake of this national disaster?
Vince Staples:Yeah, I’m good. I don’t know if it’s a national disaster. Sometimes the good guy wins, sometimes the bad guy wins.
It’s nothing new.
Vince Staples:Exactly. It’s been happening for a minute. That’s part of it. But you know, it just lets us know where we are as people. People voted for that person for a reason, so hopefully they get what they want out of it.
I don’t hope so.
Vince Staples:But we don’t know what they want. A lot of times those things are based on promises. He did say some things that would make someone vote for him, past the crazy stuff. Stuff that affects someone who doesn’t think all of that. Like, we’re gonna bring back American industry and we’re gonna do this and that—that sounds good for the dude in the middle of nowhere who can’t go to college and just wants to have a decent life and probably has a million forefathers who, you know, worked in a tire plant or another kind of factory, in a similar reality.
We haven’t asked every single person who they voted for and why they voted for them, so I think this is more about being understanding of each other because there are millions of people in this country, many of whom we know nothing of and don’t care about. No one’s asking about how the people in North or South Dakota are. Or the people in Wyoming. We’re not asking about those people. But look at that voter turnout—they’re clearly there, you know what I mean? You can’t think everyone is on the same playing field as far as everyone’s needs and intelligence in this country. It’s a big place. 50 states and we think about 4 or 5 of them.
A lot of people I know talk about cutting Trump supporters out of their lives, but I think it’s worth something to try and understand where those people are coming from.
Vince Staples:You see the dude who ripped his pants?
Vince Staples:What’s the name of the dude, the chubby dude who everyone was making fun of on the internet?
Oh, Ken Bone?
He ripped his pants?
Vince Staples:Yeah, that’s why he had the sweater on. He told the story. He was really sad.
Oh yeah, the suit was too small for him.
Vince Staples:Ken Bone said he was thinking about voting for him because he works in the coal mining industry, and he was saying some good things about the coal mining industry. I doubt that Ken Bone has one negative bone in his body. He looks like a sweetheart. But that might be who he voted for. You can’t look at him and be like, oh, he hates everyone. It’s just—promises. People promise people certain things.
Even walking around here has felt different in the last few days. I think it might be the shock.
Vince Staples:Yeah, but it always feels like this to me.
Did you go to Camp Flog Gnaw?
Vince Staples:I did.
What was it like over there? Because there was a lot going on in that area.
Vince Staples:Yeah, protests and stuff. I live downtown, so I saw a lot of it. I think people need to understand that there are a lot of ways to go about things. There are a lot of things that can be done, negatively or positively, in that light. We have to appreciate the fact that people want to be heard, no matter who it is. Whether it’s a protester, whether it’s a Trump supporter—but they were protesting when Obama got elected.
Vince Staples:I feel like the Obama protests were much more dramatic. They had signs that said like, send him back to Africa, photoshopped him in the news. They had him in a fucking monkey suit. It’s dramatic on both sides, but we didn’t see that because those were the people that voted the opposite way this time around. That’s how they felt, probably. Now it’s us who feels left out, or whatever.
Vince Staples:Yeah. The fact that it’s something that can be lost is part of the problem.
The fact that someone has to win and someone has to lose in a democracy?
Vince Staples:We can’t come to a common understanding, a common ground. To me it’s less about the election and more about the people. There are people we should be more aware of—
Vince’s Publicist:So, Watch Dogs [the new video game Vince is promoting]?
Vince Staples:I think I’m gonna run for president when I turn 62. And my whole campaign is gonna be about global warming and cakes and ice cream, ‘cause everybody likes cakes.
What about global warming?
Vince Staples:We should be like, oh, it’s happening.
It might be too late when you’re 62.
Vince Staples:Nah, they’re going to be fine.
[In the game, Staples attempts to steal a car]. Are there skateboards in here? Or like a scooter, a Vespa?
You’ve played this game before?
Vince Staples:No, this is brand new.
There’s another one though.
Vince Staples:Yeah, the first one you’re in Chicago and you have to rescue your daughter—your niece, actually—from like, a dude.
You’re still hacking?
Vince Staples:Yeah, you’re hacking. You know what? I think hacking is the future. We should hack more, ’cause Russia’s fucking us up with the hacking. I’ve seen that on the news like three times. And you can be an Uber driver.
What’s the point?
Vince Staples:You drive around, get money. What’s the point of life? This is a very expensive ride though. It’s $6,000.
A $6,000 uber?
Vince Staples:Look, man, it’s San Francisco.
It looks like a dystopia, which is kind of what San Francisco is now anyway.
Vince Staples:Yeah, this is definitely San Francisco. I’ve taken a hundred dollar Uber down the street in San Francisco. I didn’t know what I was doing.
Alright, it’s like Mario Kart. The only game I know. And pinball.
Vince Staples:Yes. How did you not know that? We gotta get you Mario Pinball. The new thing in video gaming is the open world concept. You can move freely and fluidly amongst the created environment. So the Uber-type experience is one of the many side missions. And you have an Instagram-ish account. Basically it’s a group of hackers trying to destroy the corrupt government, which is kind of—oh, they’re hacking emails? That’s not even funny, bro. Too soon.
Yeah, I feel like this is too realistic for me. It’s almost disturbing.
Vince Staples:Life is disturbing. You know the—what’s the dude’s name? Martin Shkreli, the pharmaceutical dude who signed Chief Keef and bought the Wu-Tang album for a million dollars. He’s in the game. A parody—legally, they can’t put him in here.
It’s very hyper-realistic. I think that’s kind of the point, you know? When there are so many things that are void of any type of purpose or connection to the outside world. With [games] mostly based on driving around and shooting people for no apparent reason, there aren’t that many things that can connect to real life, which is why there’s kind of a disconnect ‘cause like you were saying, there are a lot of people in shock with the state of the current world. We don’t have much connection to it outside what we see in the day-to-day. We’re not seeing the entire world in the day-to-day.
I wonder why some kids or younger people seek a hyper-realistic element in video games versus—I wanted to read Harry Potter or get as far away from the real world as possible.
Vince Staples:I mean, anything can be considered escape. It just depends. Some people find reality unsettling. Some people have a longing for the unknown, or the vastness of the world that we live in.
And this is that?
Vince Staples:Yeah, it can be seen that way.
Watch Dogs PR:“Recently leaks of confidential emails has had unexpected consequences for HPM Studios. Contents of the documents expose an ongoing—”
Vince Staples:People should really get better passwords.
But this is the kind of hacking where you’re not just guessing someone’s password.
Vince Staples:Touché. You know, the cryptic code. I feel like I know a lot of people’s passwords.
What were the go-to games you played when you were growing up?
Vince Staples:I played Hitman a lot. It’s a game about, well, obviously about a hitman, but it’s more about the idea of pre-planning. So you’re sent to a location, and you have to kill a person, but you don’t know what they look like or who they are, so you have to listen to the conversations and go around and figure out who or what is the bad guy. So it was like a patience thing. Seriously, no one played that game. You have to dissect it. I used to play that shit for like, 5 hours, non stop, just sitting and listening to people talk.
And I played Medal of Honor, because I used to like world history when I was a kid and it was based on the Second World War.
In Medal of Honor, are you fighting in it?
Vince Staples:Yeah. It was super, uh, sad, too. I learned a lot about messed up things I didn’t know about. It was based on real-life occurrences—people’s war stories and whatnot. Made me sad. Wanted to hug them.
The people in the game?
Vince Staples:The real ones. I don’t know. Now it’s like—we’re at such a fucked up point in life where everything is so accessible, everything is so in your face to where something like this game [Watch Dogs 2] could really happen. We’ve had so many stop-and-frisk situations, so many privacy agreements, we’ve had all these iCloud hacks. I can see someone taking control of our cameras in the name of the law and starting to arrest people, because that’s just stop-and-frisk with a computer.
This game is the opposite though. Hacking used as a form of protest.
Vince Staples:Yeah, but it’s all based on this guy on the dirtbike with the satchel [Marcus Holloway]. He went to prison based on a system in which the government predetermines criminals based on what they look like, what they act like, yada yada. You hear a conversation, you put someone in prison. We’re already going through that. It’s such a face-value environment. People aren’t really getting to know people before they make judgements.
It’s not a far cry from where we’re at now.
Vince Staples:We’re in a crazy place. Have you seen the movie Kingsman?
Vince Staples:Samuel L. Jackson starts a phone company and gives away free phones and everyone has a phone and they blow them all up at the same time or something crazy like that. Makes sense, because we live in a world where everyone has iPhones.
Was there a reason?
Vince Staples:He was controlling people’s minds. He started a world war or something. He was just an evil genius, and evil geniuses want to destroy the world for reasons they never explain.
What do normal geniuses do?
Vince Staples:Get bad grades.
[In Watch Dogs 2, Staples’ player sails in a bay at sunset.]
You should just stay here, it’s much more relaxing.
Vince Staples:I’m not a big fan of the ocean.
Vince Staples:No, not of ocean creatures. Fish are fucking creepy. Like piranhas? Sharks are evil.
Sharks are misunderstood.
Vince Staples:No, sharks are evil. Dolphins are evil.
Dolphins are just as smart as us, probably.
Vince Staples:They’re like gang rapists though.
Vince Staples:Google this. It’s like, crazy. Trust me. It’s crazy. They have no concept of mating. It’s like a fucking free-for-all. I did a deep google and now I don’t fuck with dolphins.
So you don’t like the ocean because of the fish?
Vince Staples:I wouldn’t want to live in the ocean.
I don’t think that’s a problem you’ll be grappling with anytime soon.
Vince Staples:You never know. I might die tomorrow and I might turn into a Koi fish, and then my whole life I’ll be trying to get out of the ocean and into the Koi pond.
I really hope I don’t have a second life.
Vince Staples:What if you’re a Koi fish?
Definitely don’t want to be that. People are always poking them and stuff.
Vince Staples:I think you could be a great Koi fish.
Thank you. If you could come back as anything in your next life, what would you be?
Vince Staples:I don’t know. What would I want to be? A velociraptor.
Staples asks manager, Corey Smyth.
Smyth:I mean, any object? Anything?
Smyth:I’d come back as water.
Vince Staples:What the fuck is wrong with you?
Smyth:You never go away. You evaporate and then come back. You’re forever here.