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Vince Staples: Vince Staples

Vince Staples is one of those rare artists who can balance musical experimentation and memorable lyrical themes and perspectives, with neither getting in the way of the other. He’s proven so time and again: Summertime ‘06 saw Staples spitting blunt truths about his turbulent LA upbringing over intensely claustrophobic and minimalistic beats, and the synth-heavy rave production of Big Fish Theory provided a brilliantly twisted context for the rapper’s furious bars on society’s brutal treatment of celebrity artists. Staples’ new self-titled album, on the other hand, scales back its instrumentals to clear the way for its lyrics. Vince Staples is a downright sleepy affair, leaving the listener with no choice but to focus on the album’s themes of death and legacy. Staples doesn’t need this space to impactfully deliver his messages though, and the result here is what feels like half of a Vince Staples record, leaving much to be desired.

This is not to say that Staples’ lyrics aren’t as sharp as usual. The 28-year-old rapper effectively delivers on his mid-career, quarter-life crisis anxieties in the only way he knows how: through the lens of his roots. On “LIL FADE” he likens his upbringing to growing up in “wartime” on “the frontlines,” and on “MHM” the streets of his childhood are the “trenches.” Throughout the album’s short runtime, headstones, candles and T-shirts memorialize the countless “dead homies” he’s lost since his formative years in North Long Beach. Vince Staples is a snapshot of a man accustomed to constantly being inches from death, summed up by “THE SHINING”’s sobering chorus “I could be gone in a blink/ I don’t wanna leave.”

Alongside these images of death are harrowing statements on how Staples feels trapped by his violent past. On “SUNDOWN TOWN,” he describes his terrifying transition from the hood to the stage, recounting “Hangin’ on them corners, same as hangin’ from a ceiling fan/ When I see my fans, I’m too paranoid to shake they hands.” Interlude “THE APPLE & THE TREE” features Staples’ mother explaining how she lied on the stand to protect his father, depicting the familial loyalty ingrained in him. He articulates these conflicted feelings best on album highlight “TAKE ME HOME,” rapping “Been all ‘cross this atlas, but keep coming back to this place/ ‘Cause they trapped us/ I preach what I practice, these streets all I know” over an unsettling acoustic guitar sample. Tik Tok viral singer Fousheé follows with a haunting performance, begging “Take me home like I clicked my shoes.”

What Vince Staples frustratingly lacks is remotely interesting instrumentals to elevate these powerful but ultimately straightforward lyrical themes. Kenny Beats, who produces on all 10 tracks, sounds utterly uninspired. Most songs lay down simple 808s and cloudy samples, a fine atmosphere for Staples’ nostalgic bars but totally forgettable otherwise. Lead single “LAW OF AVERAGES” is one tantalizing exception. A stuttering, twitching beat underscores sampled Justin Vernon and James Blake soundalike Reske, whose crooning falsetto distorts the song into a haze that contrasts wonderfully with Staples’ crystal-clear vocals. The aforementioned “TAKE ME HOME,” with its brooding guitar, is perhaps the record’s only other instance of an instrumental cooperating directly with Staples’ lyrical content.

To top it all off, Vince Staples is gone in a flash, running just 22 minutes. Staples’ self-titled fourth LP is a letdown not for what it is, but for what longtime fans know it could have been. There’s nothing offensive about a gifted lyricist stripping back his instrumentals to make way for his voice, but there’s also nothing here to justify the space he’s giving himself, especially having seen him juggle equally heavy lyrical themes with thrilling musical adventurousness on multiple records. The album’s title is fitting for its fixation on how people are remembered, but this is certainly not the record that will define Staples’ legacy.

Summary
Vince Staples’ self-titled fourth album unjustifiably strips back its instrumentals to give the formerly adventurous rapper space that he doesn’t need.
40 %
Unjustifiably stripped back

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