The Misunderstood Genius Of Vince Staples

Vince Staples is as unpredictable as they come. He’s a loose cannon, rapid-firing ideas at will. His no-nonsense, “I’ll say what needs to be said” attitude was on full display during a recent interview with Complex’s Nadeska Alexis at Coachella, when the exchange quickly turned from his life insurance policy and intention to take the plates off of his Tesla into an untethered rant about R. Kelly. It was a train wreck in slow motion: Nadeska desperately tried to rein in his unfiltered honesty but realized that the conversation was beyond recall, resigning herself to an uneasy smile and shake of the head. Just when it seemed as if the situation was on the brink of being shut down entirely, Staples dramatically pivoted to his elaborate plan to “get all the emissions out of Long Beach.” Suddenly, he was up and out of his chair and hugging the dazed host, bringing the whirlwind of an interview to a truly bizarre, if hilarious, conclusion.

Every time that Staples presents himself, whether it’s on the air or through his music, he always has something to say. Give him any random talking point and he’ll instantaneously provide a vast wealth of thoughts on the matter. Hot Cheetos are now $1.69? Blatant gentrification that warrants a civil suit. Gleaning life lessons from WorldStarHipHop fights in the Polo section at Macy’s? Simple, respect Ralph: “When you sit here and look at this horse on this shirt, how could you even feel negativity?” His theory that “Ray J will never lose” had even Tyler, The Creator in complete and utter disbelief. All of this is to say that there’s a certain shock factor to Staples’ every move, though he certainly doesn’t always intend to have that effect. When asked if he had his inhaler on hand for his Coachella performance, his immediate response was “If I die, I die,” prompting Nadeska to berate him for his nonchalant dismissal: “Sometimes I like the way you think, sometimes I hate the way you think, Vince.”

Regardless of how you feel about the “Norf Norf soldier,” there’s no denying his magnetic personality. He’s an artist deserving of close attention, even though he sometimes doesn’t enjoy it. His music demands engagement, and his ability to express complex ideas simply has made him a lightning rod for criticism. Ever since he released his debut EP Hell Can Wait, his conversational pessimism has stood out. He’s a realist in the truest sense of the word, with a clear worldview that he’s unafraid to share. The sharp and witty commentary that he’s known for is made all the more potent by his deadpan delivery and sense of humor. His approach toward documenting his life in his music is imbued with kinetic energy, a boastful, west coast bounce that is straight out of left field.

Yet hidden beneath the activity on his sardonic Twitter account, various outrageous interviews, and intelligent, visceral writing, there remains a sense of urgency to Staples’ massive proclamations. On Summertime ‘06 cut “Lift Me Up,” he addresses the racist mockery of hip hop music and culture with disconcerting depth: “All these white folks chanting when I ask them ‘Where my niggas at?’/Going crazy, got me going crazy, I can’t get with that/Wonder if they know I know they won’t go where we kick it at?”

Hit record “Norf Norf” embodies his North Long Beach roots while at the same time illustrating the “everyone fits the description” racism that continues to run rampant: “I ain’t never ran from nothin’ but the police.” As if to prove Staples’ point, a Christian mother uploaded an 11-minute video ranting about the lyrics to the song. After working herself to tears, she summed up her displeasure by imploring viewers to “pray…for our youth.” Staples responded to the viral tirade with a now deleted tweet spree in which he defended the distraught woman’s right to an opinion, and stated that she shouldn’t be attacked for what she had to say. But in typical fashion, he took it a step further in an interview with NPR:

“She’s right. That’s what the song is about: what our children are being exposed to. … My question is, why can we listen to that and pass it off like it’s not a problem? When you see a film and you see a murder scene or a rape scene or something that’s displaying an element of trauma, we don’t look at it and go, ‘This movie’s f****** great, I’m having a great time, are you?’ We feel for that. Know what I’m saying? But it doesn’t necessarily happen in that sense when we’re speaking about music. So I didn’t make that song for it to make people happy. So I don’t have a problem with what she said. You got a reaction — isn’t that the point, essentially?”

On his latest album, Big Fish Theory, Staples’ bleak honesty is made all the more jarring by his experimental, challenging production; it’s divisive and political to the core. The project spurns current trends to create abstract music that incorporates elements of rave and electronic with a raw sense of abandon. Staples’ sophisticated approach is both explosive and insightful, characterized by moments of intense introspection. His distinctive flow on the combative anthem “BagBak” speaks volumes alone: “Tell the 1% to suck a dick because we on now,” Staples shouts in the chorus. “Tell the president to suck a dick because we on now.” It’s an explicit protest song made all the more grim by the country’s current state of affairs: “Prison system broken, racial war commotion/Until the president get ashy, Vincent won’t be voting/We need Tamikas and Shaniquas in that Oval Office/Obama ain’t enough for me, we only getting started.”

At the same time, there’s a striking minimalism to Staples’ music. Over the thundering instrumental for “Party People,” he ponders the end of the world while also indulging hedonistic pleasure: “How I’m supposed to have a good time/When death and destruction is all I see?” Then there’s his onomatopoeic raps on “Big Fish,” on which the forward-thinking Staples manages to find the exact words he’s looking for to paint an incisive and vivid picture: “With the 22, five shot eyes on scan/For the click, clack, clap or the boop, bop, bam.”

This is part of the thrill of Staples’ music: no one except the man himself knows where he’s going next. His enthralling nihilism and despair at the chaotic state of the world is harnessed in assertive declarations on politics, police brutality, mental health, and the futility of fame. While it’s tempting to call his music avant-garde, the accurate descriptor doesn’t really do justice to his work. He recently played into the stereotype of the creative genius, mocking the overused buzzword on “Get The Fuck Off My Dick”: “Avant-garde with this shit, get your jaws off my dick.” The aforementioned track was the result of Staples’ latest stroke of brilliance where he politely and calmly voiced his annoyance through a GoFundMe ultimatum: “Get off of my dick, or fund my lifestyle.” His frustrations with publications, reviews, and comments have boiled over in his music before, but on “Get The Fuck Off My Dick,” he’s had enough of the nonsense: “I ain’t takin’ no more calls, might think ’bout callin’ it quits/Press is tryin’ to block my blessings, no more talking to Vince.”

In this day and age, everyone’s a critic. It doesn’t matter if you’re a writer, a fan, or simply a passerby who happens to catch wind of music online. Artists are now forced to contend with the unwanted opinions of such individuals; their every move is scrutinized beneath the microscope of the internet. From there, it’s not difficult to see why the media has been so intent to exploit Staples for clicks. He’s an outspoken, young, black man who tells it how it is, and he does so with razor-sharp wit. His music offers a running commentary on the inconsistencies of music journalism, and its inability to fully capture the essence of black art. Staples has always had a taste for the harsh and uncompromising, but it’s abundantly clear on “Get The Fuck Off My Dick” that he’s grown sick and tired of the media shrinking his vision to fit their agenda.

That being said, his most recent viral stunt is more than just a tongue-in-cheek marketing or promotional tool. It’s a sly commentary on the current state of the music industry, a response to critics who had the audacity to criticize his live performances and describe his latest album as “robot video game beats.” Very few artists are capable of reinventing themselves with each progressive album without compromising their artistic integrity. Staples has done just that; he’s one of the select few brash and realistic voices left in music. So there it is. The man who deserves a guest column in The New York Times or The Atlantic is not going anywhere. He’s not moving to Palmdale, or purchasing a Honda or puppy per his passive-aggressive GoFundMe campaign. He may or may not decide to buy “soup for the homies locked down.” One thing’s for certain: he’s going to continue to do exactly what he wants to do, when he wants to do it. Vince Staples is here to stay.

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