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Photos by Sandy Kim
Vince Staples couldn't help but riff a little. Even though he was clearly not thrilled about being put on the spot, and even though he was already making a larger point about image and pop stars and the media, this was low-hanging fruit. And if we were going to talk about money and musicians and big-picture stuff about popular culture, which he didn't really even want to discuss in the first place, then there was absolutely time for an aside. So he offered one: "All rappers, it's like, 'I'm fucking rich. You want to be rich, too? Yeah. Look at my Bentley.' It's like, 'Yeah, it's an ugly car. It's a hideous car.'" He paused briefly, considering this, winding up. "And you know what that engine intake's looking like? Because the outside, it looks very heavy. I doubt that 0–60 margin is worth the price."
He said all of this with the skeptical, knowledgeable tone of someone who has compared the relative perks of various luxury cars, which I don't doubt he has done, despite the fact that he was dressed almost identically to me, a non-car-buying person, in black jeans and a black crewneck sweatshirt, with a cloth belt so long that it nearly wrapped twice around his skinny waist. "Electric's a thing now," he added, almost over this bit but not quite. "Go get you a Fisker, same price. Fisker's probably gonna be like one, 110, 125, somewhere around there. Go ball out. Save the environment. And you won't have to pay for gas!"
I laughed because I didn't really have a response that would have done the topic justice, so I changed the subject to some other thing that Staples didn't want to talk about. It didn't occur to me at the time, sitting there, eating sushi in a cabana on the roof of a recording studio in Hollywood, but later I realized this type of one-sided exchange must happen to Staples constantly. After all, he is almost without fail the wittiest, most charismatic person in the room.
That wit, as much as the wildly inventive rap music he makes, has become his trademark, whether he's roasting racist idiots on Twitter, caustically reviewing snacks in an online video segment he does with GQ, or making fun of whatever brand is paying him to play at its show. His charisma, also present, can be tougher to identify since he's a bit of a curmudgeon; his hold on people doesn't come so much from making everyone around him feel upbeat and cheery as it does from his ability to cut through all bullshit. Whether that inspires people to project a similarly matter-of-fact self-confidence or wither along with whatever delusions they've been feeding themselves is up to them, but the point is that Staples can't help but make people want to pay attention to him. It turns out this is not quite as desirable for an entertainer as it might sound.
At the risk of overexplaining: Vince Staples is sick of giving explanations.
"As musicians, it's our job to explain," he said, as if he was, well, explaining something painfully obvious. He'll soon embark on several months of further explaining—his new album, Big Fish Theory, is sure to generate press and daunting lines of questioning from reporters. Insofar as he cared to explain during our time together, the new release focuses on "trying to explain certain things" to non-musicians about musicians—namely, "We hate musicians. We treat 'em like shit. Especially if they're good." About the explanation thing, he added, "The way I understand music is by you having a stance on someone's music you have a stance on their life, which has nothing to do with you, which is why no one should ever have a stance on musicians. Sit down somewhere, and shut the fuck up." At the risk of overexplaining: Vince Staples is sick of giving explanations.
He has good reason: If anyone has put in the work it takes to be a successful musician in the mid 2010s, it is Vince Staples. For one thing, Staples makes excellent music, the kind that effortlessly bridges basically every schism in rap's notoriously argument-prone world. He raps with a clear-eyed lyricism that any old-school head could appreciate and a wry directness that young skater kids and message-board nerds alike can yell along with as they mosh. Grounded by his voice, a deadpan tenor that cuts through commotion, his sound can range into blown-out electronic landscapes or stay tight in the pocket of rattling West Coast funk as the occasion demands.
He also puts on a razor-sharp live show and avoids basically all distractions (Staples doesn't drink or do drugs, nor does he wander into stupid extra-musical drama), while managing to be just about as entertaining and engaging outside his music as one can be. He has spoken candidly and ad nauseam to the press about his background growing up in gang-oriented Long Beach, California, astutely breaking down that world with the keen eyes of a sociologist. He has repeatedly traced his own history from pal of LA rap crew Odd Future to Mac Miller protégé to Def Jam signee, with all the explanation of his relationships with Syd tha Kid and Earl Sweatshirt and No I.D. which that entails. He has defended Lil Bow Wow and the 2000s against the cargo-shorted masses of 90s hip-hop traditionalists, making himself a flashpoint in hip-hop's never-ending generational culture wars. And as mentioned, he has offered endless hilarious quotes on athletes, snacks, and, above all, the virtues of drinking Sprite (he has been featured in its ad campaigns since 2015). Still, people ask him what his lyrics mean, as if he hasn't already said a shit-ton about everything imaginable, and as if they don't mean exactly what they say.
"Art is supposed to be—well, why's it there, why's it like that? Because it's art," he said, pointing out that we're less likely to ask, say, movie directors how their lives inform their work. "That's the answer to every question, but we still ask it anyway. It's a contradiction to be sitting here right now. It's more about the persona. It's not really about the songs."
The songs on Big Fish Theory are excellent, a further exploration of the same massive, almost industrial sounds that welled up in the production on Staples's acclaimed 2015 double album, Summertime '06, and even more sharply in his 2016 EP, Prima Donna, which also explored the contradictions of budding fame. On Big Fish Theory, Staples plays with ideas of conflicting expectations, mixing, for instance, "holy water with the Voss." Lead single "BagBak" declares, "Tell the president to suck a dick because we on now," over a bruisingly huge electronic bass.
"I like those [sounds], and I don't like the other ones," Staples said. "I used to make that other kind of stuff, but I never liked it. Like 'rap on these beats.' OK." He was emphatic that the songs are for people to come to their own conclusions about—it's "like if you're a chef, someone fixes you a meal, and you go ask the chef, 'How was it?' It's like, 'I don't know, I wasn't there.'" He pointed out that he's not doing anything that doesn't fit with his creative goals. "I've done a lot of things I didn't want to do," he said, chalking those decisions up to youth and lack of resources. "Like, [in] percentages, it's probably on the greater half."
At that moment, he was referring to creative decisions, but the idea was echoed when he described "a lot of interview brunches" at the Ace Hotel about being "a gang member." He laughed at that thought, but in it was a clue to what lies between those lines about not wanting to explain himself: his big revelation about modernity. As media saturation collapses boundaries between artists and audiences, room for uncertainty is erased. The impulse to ask artists to justify everything they do creates demand for further justification, a cycle that turns musicians into props in the game
of representing their music as literally as possible.
We like Staples because his music sounds cool as shit. But we like him, too, because he always seems to get it right—to have a vision that seems impossibly far-reaching for a 23-year-old. He is the perfect American story, the kid whose sheer cleverness has made him a star. People appear to orbit around Staples, which doesn't make much sense on its face, given his insistence that he doesn't really like hanging out and that all he does is work.
On the day of our interview, rapper Tommy Genesis came by the studio, apparently just to chill. Staples's barber, after giving him a haircut, hung around to listen to music. The director Nabil swung by, clutching a cup of tea. And Staples's publicist mentioned several times that she goes out of her way to spend time with him, which, at first, I dismissed as the hyperbole of anyone who has a vested interest in making you like another person. But it later occurred to me that she was probably telling the truth. Staples seems to have that effect on everyone.
That magnetism makes it easy to believe that Staples has all the answers, that his music will provide the thing each of us needs to be happy. It might, somewhere in there. But it might not. It's up to people to listen and decide for themselves. When we first sat down, Staples began by describing his music in completely meaningless terms. But the more you consider them, the more it becomes plausible that they really are all you need. "We got some songs," he'd said. "We got some beats and some words, you know. And then it comes to fruition. You put everything together. It's like a smoothie. And then you drink it."
Kyle Kramer is an editor at Noisey. Follow him on Twitter.