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In the week leading up to the release of his latest, self-titled album, Vince Staples, Long Beach native Vince Staples appeared on Apple Music’s Radio 1 show to premiere the single “Are You With That?” for host Zane Lowe. In describing the record’s new, more mainstream-friendly sound, Vince said this: “I was just having a lot of conversations with a lot of people around me… and people always say, ‘Oh, you used to always say these stories and this and that, and I don’t notice much about these specific things. Why don’t you put it into the music?’ And it’ll be stuff that has been in songs for years. And then I realized the backdrop wasn’t right for certain things I was saying or vice versa.”
To translate: Civilians missed the pungent reality of Vince’s detailed storytelling and trenchant, hard-won observations because they couldn’t get past the admittedly sometimes bonkers beats he shared them over. Now, Vince Staples is way too good of a rapper with way too much authenticity behind his rhymes to be getting overlooked this way — a flag I’ve been waving since first hearing him tearing up Common’s “Kingdom” back in 2014 — so it was one of those problems that needed correction, despite being a much better problem to have than the ones he describes in his music.
Vince is currently at a place in his career where this approach makes all the sense in the world. I’ve had conversations about his music similar to the ones he described to Apple Music, where fans of all ages and affiliations would argue that they just couldn’t get past those alarming beats — even those who were inclined to see past his galling comments about the ‘90s being overrated or his profuse praise for Millennial whipping boys like Bow Wow and Ray J. Rap, for all the noise its greatest proponents make about the importance of lyrical innovation, is prefaced by the beats that rappers choose to rhyme on, making the production every bit as important as the bars themselves.
To that end, he’s recruited longtime friend and frequent collaborator Kenny Beats to recalibrate the abrasive soundscapes that scared away potential listeners who warily approached his music after finding that they loved his incorrigible online personality. Rather than the bombast of a “Blue Suede” or the mid-apocalyptic futurism of his work on Big Fish Theory, listeners are now confronted with the easygoing haze of “Are You With That?” The subject matter is no less harrowing but now, the spoonful of honey helps mask the flavor of the bitter medicine with which Vince laces each of his stony-eyed recollections — which even he sometimes seems to feel ambivalent about.
We saw a little bit of this with FM!, the bouncy collection of summery bangers from 2019 that saw Vince leaning a bit toward the territory of radio friendliness, but here, he finally wholeheartedly embraces the role of an artist — something he always claimed he wasn’t. Now that he sees value in sharing the sometimes grim stories that have made up his oeuvre in a more accessible fashion, Kenny’s beats make his responsibilities a much lighter lift. It’s easier to sink into the fatalism of “Sundown Town” when the song sounds almost like a PBR&B standard made for lounging on a lazy summer day.
Likewise, “Take Me Home” would be right at home on a YouTube lo-fi station, even with its sobering depiction of gangbanging activities and their deleterious effect on his relationships. And the mellow mood of the top-down cruising anthem “Taking Trips,” camouflages the paranoid tension sizzling just below the surface without undercutting it. Instead, chill-inducing lines like “Can’t even hit the beach without my heat, it’s in my trunks” hit harder because of the relaxed atmosphere — just like an outbreak of gunshots on a warm summer day, right when you least expect it.
Clocking in at a truly breezy 22 minutes and with two interludes among its 10 tracks, it’s an even quicker listen than FM! — yet, due to its comforting sonic palette, it feels more cozy than disappointing, prompting repeat playthroughs to try and catch the witty wordplay and cushy vibes of Kenny Beats’ production. Vince Staples is just one of two planned projects this year, marking an uptick in productivity for the young rapper and as functions as something of a checkpoint delineating the break between Vince Staples, the defiant upstart, and Vince Staples, the potential star.
Vince Staples is out now via Blacksmith Recordings/Motown Records. Get it here.