Photography by Daniel Shea
Over the speakers at the Mercedes-Benz showroom on the north side of Beverly Hills, a smooth jazz cover of “Beauty and the Beast” serenades Vince Staples, the 22-year-old rapper from North Long Beach. He’s sipping coffee procured from an exceedingly fancy office espresso machine. Don’t tell him he’s not getting money.
“A 710 credit score?” the white-bearded salesman says. “I hope my grandkids can be that responsible!”
Almost everyone inside the dealership wears Italian leather and somber suits, but Staples fidgets in dirty Chucks and a Supreme shirt tucked into belt-less high-waisted Levi’s. On one of the dealership’s walls, a pastel mural depicts the Hollywood Hills. “They keep it regular around here,” Staples says, smirking. “I love it.” You can’t actually tell if he’s being serious or sarcastic.
He is here to buy a brand new Benz coupe, and he wants a fully loaded E-Class with black-on-black interior and a panoramic roof. The dealer goes over luxury grills, then scurries away to bring back paperwork for the young artist — who, since the release of last year’s Summertime 06, his Def Jam debut and a critical if not commercial success, became a short-list candidate for the most hilarious, intelligent, and subversive voice in rap.
Staples is the kind of guy to cheekily accept a check from Spotify to play a show, then use said performance to point out the perceived unfairness of the company’s streaming model. On social media, he will slyly condescend to followers too dim to follow his political logic by using a ridiculous Liam Neeson movie to explain the significance of the transatlantic slave trade, then shift straight into mocking Clippers point guard Chris Paul’s argyle Jordans. If he were a white liberal arts grad and not a Crip who happens to rap really well, you could imagine his tweets getting him a book or TV development deal. Instead, they’re a perfectly caustic, deadpan companion to his earnest, unsparing music.
Since Staples’s debut mixtape in 2011, he has used his songs to indict police brutality, civic apathy, gentrification, racial profiling, and the failed educational system. Instead of chasing radio anthems or major co-signs, he made an artful double-album with a cover inspired by Ian Curtis, mournful dirges (“Summertime”) that could be Sparklehorse songs, and haunting videos (“Señorita”) that attack the safari mentality that outsiders often apply to hip-hop. He strips away the glorification of gangsta rap and reminds listeners that their entertainment doesn’t come without a body count and other brutal consequences. Staples has transcended comparisons, but if you needed to make one: he’s the closest heir to the Ice Cube of Death Certificate crossed with the Ice Cube of Friday.
He once wrote a brilliant track called “Nate” that arguably explains his psychological evolution more clearly than anything he’d confess in an interview. It’s about childhood traumas: watching the song’s namesake, his father, chop up grams to sell, run from the cops, suffer from drug addiction, and eventually go to jail. No judgment is passed. The son understands that the father took that path to feed his family. Two rhymes frame the song’s two verses: As a kid, all I wanted was to kill a man, and, As a kid, all I wanted was a hundred grand. Now that Vince finally has the latter, he’s trying his hardest not to squander it.
“He didn’t even have a driver’s license,” says his manager, Corey Smyth, alluding to the half-decade before Staples signed with Def Jam’s ARTium imprint at the end of 2012. Smyth’s client roster also includes comedian Dave Chappelle and producer Chad Hugo of The Neptunes, but the bond between these two seems more familial than your usual manager-client relationship — Smyth is more Obi-Wan Kenobi than Colonel Tom Parker.
Staples hunches forward in the car dealer’s seat, unleashing clips of fast speech, tapping his feet and rocking back-and-forth with anxious movements. “My shit’s fucking up. I did the cheap route with this car,” he says, referencing his soon-to-be jettisoned BMW 325i, before correcting himself: “Affordable is a better word.”
On the occasion of a big purchase like this, you could imagine the buyer breaking into a muted Money Dance, Instagram flex, or something. But if you think Vince Staples would do that, then you don’t know Vince Staples. “I hate spending money,” he says when I ask if he’s happy to be here. He half-scowls, furrows his brow, and wrinkles his face like the most ancient ’90s baby in Los Angeles County.
Asked for his I.D., Staples whips out a California driver’s license, which he finally got in 2014: Vincent Jamal Staples. 5’9. 140. In the photo, there’s a lethal glint in his eyes. “I was on some bullshit in this photo, huh?” Staples deploys his disarming gap-toothed grin. He pauses to ask Smyth what he should write for occupation. “Self-employed,” Smyth says.
When the signatures and scans are processed, Staples stands up to shake hands with the salesman, who returns smiles and congratulations. As we walk out of the dealership, I ask again if this hasn’t brought at least some semblance of satisfaction. “I mean, it’s nice knowing that I can pay for something I’m trying to pay for,” he says. “Hard work pays off. You don’t get shit for nothing.” Later on, he’ll boast to his DJ, Westside Ty, that the interest rate they gave him was “yonkers.”
The youngest of four, Vince Staples was raised between Long Beach and Compton, a quiet straight-A student with a photographic memory. When he was in the 1st grade, shortly after his father was arrested on Christmas Day, his mother moved the family to a Compton backhouse owned by his aunt. (Staples refuses to talk about his father’s arrest, or what happened to him after.) The discounted rent allowed her to send him to the nearby Optimal Christian Academy, a small, black-owned private school.
“Music was the last thing I ever thought about,” Staples says. “I used to stutter and hated speaking in front of the class.” But he always had a stellar ear. His mother, Eloise Staples, describes him surprising the family by putting on shades and singing “Georgia” with a pitch-perfect Ray Charles imitation. In school, Staples was enamored by politics and current affairs, and won awards for writing, including a paper in the 6th grade that stressed the importance in life of the “oven approach” versus the “microwave mentality.”
“Late one night when he was in elementary school, I saw the bathroom light on and yelled, ‘What are you doing in there?’” Eloise recalls. “He said, ‘Nothing.’ When he finally came out, there was a book in his hand that he tried to hide. It was past bedtime, but he had a test the next day and was just trying to study. He was always wise beyond his years.”
Growing up, Staples spent significant time with his late maternal grandfather, Andrew Hutchins, who was a retired truck driver and construction worker from Haiti. A die-hard Dodgers fan, Hutchins settled in Compton because that’s where the team’s star Duke Snider was born. He lived on the eastside and, according to Staples, “accidentally helped start a gang.”
“I didn’t feel connected to hip-hop growing up. I never wanted a chain or a mansion. I just wanted niggas to stop dying.”
“There’s no better way to put it than: my family came from the streets. My whole family was gang members. I never knew what I wanted to do besides that,” Staples says.
Though he’s open about, and proud of, his gang affiliations, Staples adheres to the code of the streets. He’s not about to implicate himself or others. He neither glamorizes nor demonizes those years putting in work for the 2N Gangsta Crips. Sometimes you sense that it left him practically numb, as though he lost too many friends to give a fuck about the machinations of the music industry or the lame chirps of laptop thugs. The figurative scars are there, but he won’t discuss where they came from. He’d probably tell you that it’s corny, none of your business, and you wouldn’t understand anyhow.
We do know that the origins of his rap career can be traced back to the incident that forced him to drop out of school. Attempting to stay out of trouble, Staples selected majority-white Mayfair High in Lakewood. He was a skate kid who hooped, played football, and tried his best to memorize historical maps on a Microsoft Encarta CD-ROM. His goals were clear: play basketball, go to college, and then on to graduate school. But when he got caught with a stolen phone as a freshman, school authorities used it as the pretext to target a black kid with gang ties — even though multiple witnesses, including the kid whose phone it was, claimed that Staples was innocent.
“When my mom went to pick me up, they showed her a file with my picture on it that said ‘Active gang leader,’” Staples says. “I was 13. You ain’t leading nothing at 13.”
He was charged with multiple felonies, including aggravated assault, threatening a witness, and armed robbery, but both the school and police agreed to drop the charges if he left Mayfair. He’s murky about what followed, but the short version is that he went to Atlanta in 2008, spent eight months there, and returned home to find his mother growing sicker from cancer. That’s when he moved in with a friend’s family on Poppy Street in North Long Beach, gave up on himself, and the situation spiraled out of control. Friends were dying; the enemy was no longer an abstraction.
“I was one of them kids, bro. I wanted all of it. I was like, ‘Fuck it, I’m here, I might as well do it for real,’” Staples says about his time on Poppy Street. “I can’t stand when motherfuckers half-ass it. That’s why I work so hard.”
But a lifeline emerged in 2010 in the form of a friend, Dijon Samo, who brought Staples to Odd Future’s studio to meet Syd the Kid. He’d rapped for fun before, without ever having taken music seriously. But now, the studio offered a safe space with a couch to crash on. Keeping his other life a secret, Staples quickly bonded with Syd, her younger brother Taco, and fellow Odd Future affiliate Mike G. It was several months before Odd Future blew up and Earl Sweatshirt, one of the group’s standout talents, absconded to Samoa at the behest of his mother. At the studio, Earl and Staples recorded “epaR,” a song that both have repeatedly disavowed for its depictions of rape. Nonetheless, the track swept Staples up in Odd Future’s early hype.
“He was the one dude not from Odd Future working at my studio,” Syd says. “We’re all mature now, but at the time, certain people acted like, ‘If you ain’t from Odd Future, then you can’t sit with us,’ toward him. It’s a testament to his genius that he could move past that and be like, ‘This is my music over here. It doesn’t sound like them. I can do it by myself.’”
As Odd Future hysteria started to subside at the end of 2011, Staples met Smyth through a mutual friend, Om’Mas Keith of Sa-Ra. The veteran manager spurred Staples to take music seriously, which dovetailed with Earl Sweatshirt’s return from his South Pacific sabbatical. In early 2012, Earl brought Staples to Mac Miller’s house, which had essentially emerged as a West Coast rap camp. Just beginning to make his own beats, Miller handed Staples almost everything he had, which Staples turned into his breakout mixtape, 2013’s Stolen Youth. Around the same time, Smyth negotiated the deal with Def Jam and helped move Staples off Poppy Street for good. Momentum started to build; financial and emotional stability soon followed.
“The situation [had been] like, ‘The city trying to take the house again. The police is here. So-and-so went to jail. We ain’t got no food. The water’s off. The house is getting shot up,’” Staples says. “Once that was out of my head, it was like, ‘Now what are we going to do with this rapping?’”
Vince Staples wakes up every morning at 7 a.m., an old habit carried over from years spent sleeping on couches and floors. At slightly past 10, he has already waxed philosophical on the following subjects: the mistreatment of Jews, Mexicans, and the Irish from 1875 to 1930 (“They were all hanging out together, having a good old time being racially profiled”); taxes (“Taxes is cracking, bro”); and how George W. Bush lived out the American dream (“He got a wife, some paper, some bros”). He condemns the gentrification patterns of Downtown Los Angeles (“They don’t care enough about Mexicans, as you can see from the current state of the Republican Party”).
He lives downtown now, in a sparsely furnished loft that was converted from an auto parts factory a decade ago. On a bookshelf, a Joy Division “Love Will Tear Us Apart” 12-inch idles next to miniature figurines from Breaking Bad and Pulp Fiction. On the marble kitchen countertop, a David Bowie coffee mug sits beside three books, each in stark contrast: Juice It, Handguns, and a memorial pamphlet for his recently departed friend, Tarrick McNeely. “Niggas spend their whole life on the set and die off of some bullshit like Xans.” Staples mumbles, referring to the drug often used to treat anxiety and panic disorders. “People were bugging that that was what killed him. It’s corny but it happens. That drug shit is real.”
Scattered mementos aside, most boxes remain unpacked. Though Staples paid steep rent for the past month, he only had time to move in a few days ago. Until recently, he’d lived in Orange County with his ex-girlfriend, who he’d dated on-and-off since middle school. But when he came home from tour in September, 2015, her stuff was gone and she’d left behind a goodbye note. “She’s a good girl who deserves to be who she wants to be,” Staples says, eulogizing his relationship. “But I was a different person when I was little.” Asking what exactly that means, there’s a blunt dead-end with the answer: “I did dumb shit.”
He’s not worried about sitting around wallowing, though, and compares his upcoming tour schedule to that of the legendary Bruce Springsteen. That’s actually an apt reference point: Staples and the 66-year-old classic rock singer from New Jersey are both blue-collar artists with indefatigable work ethics, who celebrate and humanize their hometowns but simultaneously convey the desperate need to escape those circumstances. Yet while Springsteen focused on Vietnam veterans and abandoned factories to tell tales of the urban poor waylaid by the false promises of industrialization, Staples raps about teenagers being shot dead or thrown in jail for life — the futility not just of capitalism but of America.
“When you act regular, they treat you regular.”
Leaving the apartment, we head to get coffee at a bougie espresso parlor in the South Park district. On the way there, Staples interrupts his own discursive lecture on NBA playoff permutations to wave at small dogs and babies in strollers. They all love him. “See?” he says. “When you act regular, they treat you regular.” Spend time around Staples and you’ll repeatedly hear “regular” used as an aspirational ideal. For him, the word describes a life in between being an active gang member and being a super-famous rapper, maybe something closer to the type of person he might’ve been had he not been forced to abandon his erstwhile grad school plans.
His near-austere lifestyle is unusual for anyone his age, gangbanger or celebrity: he’s never drank or smoked. And despite his proud 2N affiliation, no tattoos cover his wiry frame. But he still gives rides to car-less friends, picks up calls from jails, and deposits money in commissary accounts. When Staples isn’t performing or recording, he’s playing NBA 2K on Playstation, following sports, reading, or watching episodic crime dramas. He just finished AMC’s Breaking Bad spinoff, Better Call Saul. If I want to understand why people join gangs, he recommends Sons of Anarchy. Staples says he always wanted to be “normal… a family dude.” As direct evidence of his desire for regularity, he offers: “Beethoven is my favorite movie. Beethoven 2, too.”
But if novelist Vladimir Nabokov was right, and genius is nonconformity, Vince Staples will never be normal. That won’t stop him from trying, though. During the time that we spent together, he loosely outlines a few basic goals: he wants enough money to invest in real estate, help out disadvantaged schoolchildren in Long Beach — he’s currently in talks with Levi’s about sponsoring a program — have kids of his own, and raise them in a middle-class L.A. suburb. Maybe somewhere like Torrance, the sleepy residential enclave that sits 20 miles south of L.A.’s downtown core. “I’ve never met anyone from Torrance who didn’t have their head on straight,” Staples says.
We make our way from the coffee spot to the Original Farmer’s Market on Fairfax Avenue, taking Wilshire to Beverly, cutting past the baronial mansions of Hancock Park to reach this Depression-era landmark on the Westside, with its old-time toffee emporiums, ethnic food stands, and souvenir shops. At the market, a tour guide in a 10-gallon hat points at Staples and says, “That guy is famous.” His Tommy Bahama audience snaps photos in response.
Perusing the hat racks in search of Yankees and North Carolina fitteds, Staples comments on the smell of weed smoke. Mid-interview, he’s interrupted by a beautiful 30-year-old woman in couture sweatpants, who fans out over him like she’d just run into Zayn Malik.
A few hours later, he’ll tweet: “I fell in love at the Farmer’s Market.”
That evening, as we listen to songs from Staples’s forthcoming Prima Donna EP, the sturdy insulated walls at Hollywood’s Record Plant Studios shake so hard that you envision the platinum plaques falling to the ground. The eyes of the ultra-professional engineers give the “great googly moogly” bulge. Even though this isn’t their first time hearing the EP, they tell Staples they haven’t heard anything like this before. It’s the truth, not idle flattery. With production from NoID, James Blake, and DJ Dahi, the six-song set starts with a rap star killing himself and concludes with him first coming to fame. You’re meant to be able to play it front-to-back or back-to-front. Either way, it’s a chaotic fusion of warped soul, distorted hooks, and extraterrestrial demonic spirituals. The tentative release date is sometime this summer.
Staples opened his 2014 EP Hell Can Wait by chanting I’m probably finna go to hell anyway. If there was a best-case scenario for hell’s sonics, Prima Donna may be it. And in Vince Staples’s version, the sounds of Long Beach — the patter of seagulls is a recurring sample — surround Satan.
If trap turned self-destruction into the contemporary party soundtrack, Staples’s music details that party getting shot up, the getaway of the killers, and the retaliatory search party that sets off in pursuit. It respects both the one who got shot and the shooter. Prima Donna represents his greatest artistic leap forward: it’s a hyper-musical fusillade of sounds that could be described as psychedelic gangsta rap blues that you could play at 2 a.m. at an underground rave.
According to NoID — a frequent collaborator, Grammy-winning producer, and the executive vice president and head of creative at Def Jam, who signed Staples — “Vince has a street perspective and an indie perspective as well. His tastes are different, more diverse. He blends storytelling with the street perspective. He definitely has the potential and ability to become one of the greatest of his generation.”
It helps that few are better at the art of pure, raw rapping than Vince Staples. The poetic eye for detail and pistol-whipping turns of phrase aren’t accidents. This is more remarkable for the fact that he says he hates wasting time in the studio, and claims to always arrive with fully formed songs. Though he often says he doesn’t care about hip-hop, it’s evident that Staples devotes monomaniacal focus to his projects.
In fact, it’s not that he’s anti-rap, it’s that he’s “not a fan of rap culture,” as he told California Sunday last year. Staples sums up that personal credo in seven words, barked on “Norf Norf”: I’m a gangsta Crip/ Fuck gangsta rap. At least in part, it’s an explanation of what he means when he says doesn’t care about rap: he refuses to romanticize hip-hop in the way of so many of his predecessors, and some of his peers. He has no loyalty to something as broad as a genre, especially one he’s described as filled with fakes, fuelled by an unreasonable fealty to a bygone era, and driven by regressive standards.
“Rappers is busters. Niggas can’t lie to me. I’ve been around too long,” Staples says. “Rappers be tucking their tiny T-shirts into baggy jeans just to show they bought a $500 dollar belt,” he adds, lifting his eyebrows like Groucho Marx. “They ain’t shooting nobody, bro.”
“Rappers is busters. Niggas can’t lie to me. I’ve been around too long.”
If you ask him about his past, he’s quick to tell you that he doesn’t feel anything. Maybe this is a partial pose. Maybe this is the truth. But it’s hard to believe that anyone cares more than Vince Staples. He just doesn’t show it by trite preaching or employing woke rap tropes. He won’t judge the cycle, but he wants to break it. And that’s pretty much his cause; while other rappers, fans, and the industry get caught up talking about rap, Staples is always talking about real life.
In an Instagram caption preceding last year’s release of Summertime, he described the album’s title and its raison d’être: “At the end of the day we’re all dead anyway. At least where I come from. Summer of 2006, the beginning of the end of everything I thought I knew. Youth was stolen from my city that Summer and I’m left alone to tell the story.” He was 13 that summer, and he details its significance both in recollection and in retrospect on songs like “Birds & Bees” (I shot your child, so what, you know we wildin’ after dark/ The sun come down and guns come out, you know Ramona Park) and “Lift Me Up” (Was standin’ on this mezzanine in Paris, France/ Finna spaz cause most my homies never finna get this chance).
“At 14 years old, the problem was, ‘Man we really have to kill these niggas.’ Not what real hip-hop was and who was Top 5,” Staples continues, the frustration obvious in his voice. “Niggas from my neighborhood are dying and getting 15-to-life, and people use music as a distraction. I didn’t feel connected to hip-hop growing up. I never wanted a chain or a mansion. I just wanted niggas to stop dying.”
In the course of playing back Prima Donna in Hollywood, Staples learns about the murder of Lil Stomp, a friend from North Long Beach, who was killed over a gang feud during a game of basketball. There is frustration, but no tears. He’s furious but totally calm — the grief of someone who has received these phone calls too many times, and whose only real wish is to make them stop.
On Summertime, Staples alludes to Ramona Park as a place where shit goes down. In early May, a rusting RV hulks in a driveway near there, under a 40-foot tree and mercury skies. It’s a low-slung colorless afterthought — the sort of place you drive past and immediately forget. Unless you can’t. Here, in the infinite suburbia of Southern California, you could get cut down in a cul-de-sac, bleeding under a blooming Jacaranda.
At Ramona Park, there are two skulking cops and only a single seagull. The officers wait for trouble in a squad car next to the bathrooms, but none comes. The dirt baseball field is empty. The tennis courts have a sagging net and look unused. On the playground, a solitary father helps his son down a chemical-yellow plastic slide. Four dudes in bandannas talk in one corner. It’s an overcast day, a reminder that we’re not far from the beach.
When I talk to Staples on the phone a few days later, I ask him what happened at Ramona Park. “No one ever got killed there,” Staples tells me. “At least not that I ever heard of.”
It’s hard to know whether he’s being serious, or delivering a challenge in the form of deflection. It’s before 9 a.m., and he has already been tweeting about the killing of another friend, Lionel Gibson, a 21-year-old who was shot the night before by the police on the east side of Long Beach. They mistook his airsoft rifle for an actual firearm.
I ask what Gibson was like. “He was a kid. All kids is the same,” he says. “He had a bad run in with drugs at one point. He wasn’t a gangbanger or nothing. Just a regular kid. He made music. He was trying to stay out of trouble.”
On Twitter that day, Staples memorializes his friend. In response, his mentions are filled with the kinds of accusations of bias typically aimed at Black Lives Matter activists. For a second, he takes a break from his jokes about barbers and basketball players to deploy a cutting sarcasm, tweeting, “I apologize to all of the people who are offended by me caring about the lives of the kids Ive watched grow up just to be murdered.” A few hours later, the playoffs are back on, and it’s back to ripping Chris Webber.
No matter how vivid his songs are, or how carefully you listen, it’s difficult to fully understand Vince Staples. If anything, he has the traditional temperament of a stand-up comic: the funniest person in the room when they’re onstage, then morose and skeptical as soon as the camera’s shut off. I ask if he’s depressed and he responds, as he often does: “I don’t even know what that means.” Then he adds, “I’m probably depressed. I know I’m negative. To me, that and depression are the same thing.”
We talk for a few more minutes about what he’s been tweeting about, about the senseless loss of life and the apathy that most people feel when they don’t know those involved — the anonymous headlines we read that make us sad for a few minutes, until we trudge on with the rest of our day. Our conversation all loops back to one question: whether or not we can change our basic human nature. He sounds exhausted, as though he never wants to talk about this stuff again, but knows he has to. I ask if he has the answers because he seems like one of the few people smart enough to figure it out.
“I don’t know shit, bro,” he says wearily. “All these things that I’ve seen have only taught me that I don’t know nothing. All I know for certain is where the park at. You take the 91, get off on Downey, and turn right.”