Reflections in Real Time: On Vince Staples and Kilo Kish

Donna-Claire traces the history of Vince Staples' work with Kilo Kish.
By    July 17, 2017

Art by TSE Daniel

Donna-Claire prefers the old Yankee Stadium.

Big Fish Theory’s runtime is two thousand one hundred and ninety-nine seconds, in which the second it takes Kilo Kish to say ‘gunshot,’ is the most important. Her voice coats the boom of the bullet and she cements her presence on this album as nothing short of instrumental. That’s meant to be taken literally: Kilo Kish is not a feature credit, she’s the most haunting instrument in Vince Staples’ arsenal.  

We can trace Kilo’s role in Vince’s music back to 2011, where she makes a ghostly appearance on Shyne Coldchain Vol.1. She opens “Phat Wemin” with her airy vocals chopped up across each measure. The novelty of her approach is undeniable, but Kilo comes across almost scared of her own creative energy. On the surface, her two refrains are simply padding Vince’s verses with mentions of Cadillacs and vodka. In reality, this song is the first public instance of the duo laying the foundation for the rest of their intertwined artistic futures. “Phat Wemin” is the crumpled blueprint for “Love Can Be….” Kilo Kish precedes Vince on “Love Can Be…,” her voice still something of a specter. Her confidence in her avant-garde aesthetic foregrounds an earned bravado as she raps, ‘Love can be a lot, so maybe not,’ and ushers in Vince’s verse.

The history of these collaborations go both ways, as Vince has made appearances on Kilo’s projects since her 2012 Homeschool EP. In a sea of male voices during the spoken segment of “Julienne,” Vince stands out as the most comedic and charismatic. For the uninitiated, this skit is an ancestor of Kilo’s verse on Prima Donna’s “Loco,” where she comes in somewhere between spoken word and poised flow to deliver a feel-good post-hook. Their implied camaraderie—as she rehashes old memories—implies a polite ‘fuck you’ to the naysayers, giving this song endless replay value.

Jumping to 2013 and Kilo’s K+, Vince appears on “Trappin,” co-produced by Earl Sweatshirt and Kilo Kish, and sounds like he is winding out of reality. There were plenty of signs that Vince Staples was going in the UK garage EDM direction, particularly his recent work with Flume. Yet, after re-listening to “Trappin,” Vince’s musical direction has been right under our noses. The beat on “Trappin” drones off into oblivion as Vince delivers a weary verse in much the same way the production on “SAMO” circles itself, emphasized further by Vince’s muddied vocals.

One of Kilo Kish’s many functions on Big Fish Theory is to provide relief from the oppressive bass. Kilo works as a foil to almost all of the production on this album, either skating above it or combatting it entirely. Think about the structure of “Crabs in a Bucket,” where Vince effectively sets the stage for Kilo to contrast and emphasize his dejected tone. Perhaps “Homage” is the perfect example of Kilo Kish’s vocals smoothing out the grimy and claustrophobic bass. In essence, Kilo glues together the trapping fishbowl this record is built on.

As the beat on “Homage” settles at her feet as she sings the outro, we get a moment to catch our breath before the near-crushing weight of “SAMO.” Though almost uncomfortably jarring as her ‘way up, way up,’ adlibs coil around the song and hover over you, taking the song from jagged to challenging. Her adlibs haunt the spaces of the cut and stay with you long after the song is over, transforming “SAMO” into an unlikely competitor for ‘most memorable track’ on the album.

Looking at these appearances by the numbers, up until Big Fish Theory, Kilo would only appear on one or two tracks. On Big Fish Theory, we can catch Kilo on almost half of the tracklist. This might imply that it took Vince six years to realize the full potential of Kilo’s voice, except that revelation comes across far clearer on Summertime ‘06.

Kilo Kish has two guest spots on Summertime ‘06: “Dopeman” and “Surf.” “Dopeman” has Kilo adopting a Vince Staples style of delivery, with her performance sounding worn, but the feature credit proper is not the only site of examination. The beat on “Dopeman” is driven by an obscured and murky voice: Kilo Kish’s voice. As a result, “Dopeman” can be considered the seminal moment for Kilo Kish as an instrumental choice.

Now we can revisit the gunshot on “Ramona Park is Yankee Stadium” and compare it to the unfiltered shot on Prima Donna’s intro, “Let it Shine.” All of the tension of Prima Donna hinges on the gunshot startling you, on the tragedy of suicide. On “Ramona Park is Yankee Stadium,” the tone is far more probing. Vince’s proposed death is still a spectacle, but the view has shifted from intimate to voyeuristic. When the gun goes off and Vince passes away, Kilo’s speaking over the bullet is her escorting us out of the venue. ‘Gunshot’ is her way of telling you to look away because the show is over. She is the tension of the record. Imagine: fish belly up on the floor, glass everywhere, shoes wet, but we would have never known to look away and come back next time if Kilo Kish hadn’t been programmed into the heart of the beat. 

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