"Summer of 2006, the beginning of the end of everything I thought I knew." In the Instagram post announcing the release of his debut Def Jam Records double album Summertime ‘06, Vince Staples pinpoints a bad stretch roughly ten years ago as the moment his youth was stolen by a wave of loss encompassing “too many to name, too many to forget.” It happens to all of us. Childhood ends, cracked under the weight of a random unkindness, revealing ugly machinations outside. In the inner city, we learn it faster. The ghetto is a trap, a forgotten place, its objective to contain, not sustain. Cee-lo picked it up on “Cell Therapy”: “Every now and then I wonder if the gate was put up to keep crime out or to keep our ass in.”
When you figure out the answer to the question, you can either fight to claw your way out or familiarize yourself with the systems inside to break the game to your advantage. Vince Staples has done a bit of both. Rapping when he could and hustling when he couldn’t, the Long Beach, California MC inched his artistry to a point where his skill and scope were undeniable, and, partnering with Def Jam Records production whiz No ID (and Kendrick Lamar associate DJ Dahi and Lil B collaborator Clams Casino), set out to make it swing. Summertime ‘06 is simultaneously more sinister and more friendly to dance than its predecessors Hell Can Wait and Shyne P. Coldchain II, a nigh-impossible trick for anyone not in Public Enemy’s Bomb Squad. Chuck D envisioned the end of the world as a dance party. Prince too.
The mood sours early: “I’m just a nigga until I fill my pockets / And then I’m Mr. Nigga, they follow me while shopping,” Vince scowls at the top of opener “Lift Me Up.” Like Kanye on “New Slaves,” Staples can’t shake the weight of people’s deep-seated discomfort with blackness even with a little money to throw at it. The title of the song stretches out into a mantra at the chorus, the rapper begging for uplift although deep down as you wonder whether he expects any. Summertime ‘06 is dark, but it needs to be. “On the news you can hear about terrorism all day,” the rapper told Noisey last month, “you can hear about wars, you can hear about how many people are dying in other places and you’ll understand it, but you never really get it until a 9/11 happens or until you see someone from ISIS cutting someone’s head off. This music is that to me.”
Like the harrowing video for lead single “Senorita,” where a crowd chases salvation that they’ll never reach to the bemusement of a white family comfortably spectating via television, Summertime ‘06 presents the troubles of Vince Staples’ hometown from intersecting angles. On “Norf Norf,” he’s the prideful, menacing gang member, and on “Dopeman,” he’s the cold, capitalist neighborhood dealer, but “Jump Off the Roof” reverses roles to capture the crushing desperation of a coke addict running out of options. Summertime ‘06 flits around these different perspectives, illuminating their strengths and shortcomings. The street entrepreneur is rewarded for his cunning in wealth that’s often short-lived; the righteousness of the devout doesn’t spare them from struggling either. The streets don’t love anyone. Bullets don’t seek specific targets.
As much as Vince Staples is concerned with what’s going on in and around Long Beach, he’s also eerily aware--and critical--of the audience interacting with the music. He knows Summertime ‘06 will ring out beyond his hometown, to people who can never fathom the lifestyles it catalogues. If the TV screen reveal at the end of the “Senorita” video wasn’t a clear enough indicator of Staples’ understanding of the modern hip-hop artist-to-audience dynamic, he spells it out cleanly on “Lift Me Up”: “All these white folks chanting when I asked ‘em where my niggas at… / Wonder if they know I know they won’t go where I kick it at.” He sharpens the sentiment later in the same verse: “They rapin’ niggas’ pockets / And we don’t get acknowledged / Just thank me for the profits.” The record label machine profits greatly off of the black adversity driving hip-hop, but the communities that birthed the culture remain lacking in simple infrastructure and amenities. Like Kendrick Lamar, Staples knows he’s complicit in it for playing ball with a major, so he settles for handing Def Jam its most uncompromisingly bleak release in a calendar year.
As is the case with the hope-starved city dwellers Summertime ‘06 vividly depicts, the darkness isn’t the story; it’s what you do in it, how you find your way out of it, that counts. The album exposes its beating heart midway through on the title track “Summertime.”: “My teachers told me we were slaves, my momma told me we was kings / I don’t know who to listen to, I guess we’re somewhere in between.” When you come from a forgotten place, you’re born counted out. You grow up overlooked. You lose out when you allow a prescribed narrative assign your story to you. Subvert, shake, bend, break expectations and change the world. On “Summertime,” Vince’s act of defiance is love: "Open up your heart / If we don't love, then we fall apart." Like a good hustler, he’s suspicious of that too: “My feelings tell me love is real / But feelings known to get you killed.” Like a good man, none of this will stop him from trying.