Vince Staples: King of the Beach

“Find out. Know the city mine now. Get some other s–t to lie about.

That’s a chest-thumping line from Vince Staples’ new eponymously titled album, and it’s as true as it is boastful. Staples’ recently released album, his fourth, is the highest-charting project from a Long Beach artist in six years. It was the top rap album last week on Billboard’s rap chart, it was the top Billboard debut album in the week it came out, and it had a global No. 1 streaming debut on Spotify.

With every song on the new project getting over one million streams on Spotify already, as well as Staples’ NPR Tiny Desk Concert from last Friday already pushing 300,000 views on YouTube, it’s no wonder the rapper wryly guaranteed in a recent radio interview that he’s “definitely” one of the top 5,000 rappers of all time.

“Vince Staples,” released by Motown Records, feels like a culmination of the 28-year-old rapper’s career to this point. It’s  laced with the same paranoia and depression that has hovered over his previous albums, but there’s a cynicism that runs deeper this time around.

Previous projects from Staples have used summer in Long Beach as a reference point—his debut “Summertime 06” and his most recent project, “FM!,” especially. But while “FM!” featured somewhat bouncier takes on the city’s most popular season (including tracks “Feels Like Summer” and “Fun!”), the new album is more pessimistic.

“I hate July,” he raps on “Taking Trips.” “Crime is high, the summer sucks. Can’t even hit the beach without my heat it’s in my trunks.”

That’s a far cry from famous Long Beach summer anthems like War’s “Summer,” the Dove Shack’s “Summertime in the LBC” or Sublime’s “Summertime.” That’s the difference between Staples and most other rappers, whether they’re from Long Beach or anywhere else. His songs often offer a window into the double helix of exhilaration and terror that come with gang life and gun violence—he’s writing about Tony Soprano on a therapist’s couch, not Tony Montana in the club.

The album also features the usual sprinkles of Long Beach flavor. There’s a spoken word track called “Lakewood Mall,” references to the Church’s Chicken at South and Cherry, and plenty of other North Long Beach geography mapped over Kenny Beats’ restrained production.

Despite the danger and suspicion Staples describes feeling around every corner in Long Beach, he also says he’s following the path least taken for the city’s long roster of rap stars—the path that stays in the city. Unlike other rappers, he’s often said he’s not trying to make it out of Long Beach. On “The Shining,” he raps, “Asked when Imma move to Malibu or Calabasas—I can’t never do it, I’m too active.”

It’s a sentiment he’s discussed before, including in an April interview in GQ, where he said, “In a perfect world, more than anything musically or more than anything creatively, my goal in life is to be able to live in Long Beach peacefully. And for everybody else to be able to live in Long Beach peacefully. That means a lot to me.”

Where the optimism of Staples the philanthropic Long Beach resident collides with the cynicism of Staples the rapper is on the street, in real life—in a city that’s seen a huge jump in shootings this year.

Despite the city’s flaws and real-life dangers, Staples is committed to it. He continues to be Long Beach’s best writer about gang life or gun violence, in any medium. I’m glad he’s ours, and I’m glad he’s here to stay. I’m not gonna lie about it: The city’s his.

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