Rapper Vince Staples does not think of himself as an activist, despite having written songs about the deadly mistreatment of unarmed black youth before the terrible Michael Brown summer of 2014.
“African American men had been treated badly by authorities before that,” says Staples. Writing and rhyming about racial stereotyping ("Smile") and the systematic incarceration of young black men ("Pimp Hand") doesn’t put him in league with provocative, proactive hip-hop stars like Talib Kweli, Brand Nubian, or even Common, with whom he’s worked. “I don’t see myself in line with anyone, really -- not in a bad way -- I can’t say what they were creating. I can’t speak to their intentions. Just mine.”
Yet, since the Long Beach, Calif., lyricist released his first mixtape (2011’s Shyne Coldchain Vol. 1), appeared throughout Earl Sweatshirt's debut (2013’s Doris), and dropped his own frank full-length album, 2015’s Summertime ’06 (a double-album debut, no less), Staples has been creating audacious, moving work that looks deeply, darkly, and with plainspoken force and humor into the currency of black culture. “Because that’s what was there,” the pragmatic Staples says about Summertime ’06, and how it leads into the present day and a tour that brings him Monday to Union Transfer.
Produced by No I.D., Summertime ’06 tracks like “Lift Me Up” looked at the drudgery of daily violence with a chillingly blasé finality, yet without resting on the black laurels of death’s door. There’s hope at the end of the tunnel that you won’t always find in other rappers' work (or rockers', for that matter), unless there’s treasure or sex to be had. You can hear Staples’ epic debut and think of it as reading a tautly told coming-of-age tale such as S.A. Hinton’s The Outsiders, where the good outweighs the bad, but the bleak is pretty rough to get through.
“I don’t think my stuff is dark, but I do hear that all the time,” he says. “I just say how I feel. I am happy that people want to know. Everyone has an opinion about what and how I’m saying.”
Besides, Staples didn’t come from a place of music or rap. As a kid, he was a quiet, straight-A student with a photographic memory and a stutter. ”That seems like a long time ago,” the 23-year-old says with a laugh. By the time he got past the stutter, found hip-hop, and figured its possibilities, the rap game was more about waltzing his way out of financial woes, helping his family get by, and serpentining through North Long Beach's street crime and drug trade.
“I was aware of hip-hop’s possibilities, but that didn’t really affect me then, because I wasn’t there yet as a kid,” says Staples. “My appreciation grew as I got older and got out of myself, out of my head.”
Ask what he has learned about himself since the critically lauded Summertime ’06 as a presence on the cultural landscape, and he’s cool about the whole process. “There are a lot of things that I have been and a lot of things that I have seen, and my principal goal is to just be a better person. I’m working on those motivations.”
Now, with his current single, “BagBak” -- from his out-any-second sophomore album, Big Fish Theory, and lyrics such as “Our father art in heaven, as I pray for new McLarens / Pray the police don't come blow me down 'cause of my complexion” -- Staples’ bleak comic outlook focuses on the present tense of black lives and how they matter without nestling solely or solemnly on political rhetoric. Point of fact: He's calling his coming showcase “The Life Aquatic Tour,” not so much because he’s a Wes Anderson fanatic, but because he likes the thought of water; a dream of an ocean away from his onetime home between Compton and Paramount. He says: “It’s just a fun experience, the tour.”