(Photo: Christopher Walker)
One of the joys of catching a rising star in concert, early in their career, is the opportunity to track their evolution. For example, I witnessed musicians such as Natasha Khan (Bat for Lashes) and Claire Boucher (Grimes) transform from tentative performers into singers with full command of the stage. Another musician coming into his own is Long Beach-native Vince Staples. In town to support his EP Prima Donna, Staples put on an electrifying, nearly 90-minute performance that was light years ahead of his already-strong show from last year.
If last year’s show at the Hawthorne Theatre was a bare bones affair, Staples amplified things while stripping down even more at the much larger Roseland Theater. Performing without a DJ even, Staples played a captivating set fueled by his own energy. It was a coming out party of sorts, a defiant show of will where Staples, armed only with a microphone and some killer rhymes, held the attention of the sold-out audience, many of whom shouted along to his lyrics.
One of the best thing about Staples’ music, including his monumental double LP Summertime ‘06, is the strange, extended instrumental breaks that fuel his songs with menace. During that show last year, Staples bounced from song to song, performing only the vocal bits and often cutting things short. This time around, tracks such as “Lemme Know” and “Señorita” were given the space to breathe.
Billing this sprint across the country the Life Aquatic Tour, Staples was flanked by large LCD screens displaying fish, waves, sharks and at one point, lava. Maybe there is something elemental about his performance, but these images helped underscore the danger that lurks beneath the surface of his songs.
Staples’ set, spanning 20 songs, included not only a plethora of Summertime ‘06 and Prima Donna cuts, but also reached back to his breakout EP Hell Can Wait, as he finished off his first set with “Blue Suede.” Staples said little between songs, but his charisma was undeniable. Cloaked in shadow for a good portion of the show, Staples bounded about the stage rapping over a backing track that sounded exactly like the records in some places. However, Staples played with the songs, bending the notes upwards at the end of each line of “Lift Me Up” and letting loose a staccato blast of rhyme on “Birds & Bees.”
Although I prefer hip hop shows with live bands, Staples made me believe here. Returning for a fiery version of “Norf Norf,” complete with a projected postcard of Long Beach with images of black men in handcuffs, and the morning-after comedown of “Summertime,” Staples finished the show with a strong encore, proving that he can be both incendiary and introspective. I look forward to seeing how much he’s grown as a performer next time he comes to town.