On Summertime ’06 

Vince Staples Summertime 06

From samples, to interpolations, to autobiographical lyrics, the past is an integral part of how hip-hop is made. When it comes to the main narratives in hip-hop, the stories rappers tell about themselves, this ingrained relationship with the past has often resulted in tales of redemption: Kendrick Lamar escapes the “m.a.a.d.” city, Biggie gets a Sega Genesis, Ice Cube finally has a good day. On his debut double album Summertime ‘06, Vince Staples doesn’t find redemption. For him the past isn’t a distant memory, a road he can finally drive down after a long, tiring walk. Vince Staples sees the past as the horizon of his future, a roundabout in which he can change lanes but never exit.

Though Summertime ‘06 is timestamped by its title, Staples freely weaves in and out of his past and present. On “Lift Me Up” he’s performing for legions of fickle white fans in Paris; on “Norf Norf” he’s lamenting that Long Beach has never seen any of Obama’s mythical “change”; on “Hang ’N Bang” he’s on the corner Crippin’. These leaps through time can be jarring, but Vince’s inconsistency isn’t the result of sloppiness. When it comes to setting the scene, Vince isn’t concerned with concrete details like what music he was bumping or the clothes he was rocking in 2006. He’s more concerned with mood. Summertime ‘06 isn’t a time period; it’s a perspective, an angle for processing the world.

Vince’s perspective is unapologetically dense. The album begins with “Ramona Park Legend Pt 1,” which features the sounds of a beach: waves crashing on the shore, seagulls yelping in the sky, stillness all around. A bluesy wail briefly trickles in the background, but moments later it’s greeted by menacing percussion, circling in the water like a shark. But even the shark isn’t the real menace. The song ends with an oblique gunshot, the true apex predator. This isn’t any beach. It’s Long Beach, the “end of the land with the surf and the sand,” as Vince tersely describes it on “Jump off the Roof.” Vince sees Long Beach in stark detail, recognizing and repping both the symbolic beauty and destruction of a beach, the calm waters and the threatening waves.

This mixture of beauty and danger and pride permeates the album. Staples regularly shouts out his old haunts – Ramona Park, Poppy Street, Artesia Boulevard, 65th Street – freely admitting that he’s done dirt on all of them. These are the places where he was made, places where he’s witnessed and facilitated death and ruin. But Vince doesn’t want to be forgiven, to be seen as having made it. “Fuck gangsta rap,” he snarkily says on “Norf Norf.”

He seems to mean it. “Dopeman,” a hazy song driven by droning synths, doesn’t make drug dealing sound particularly fun. Expert murmurer Kilo Kish chants “I don’t need a gun just to melt a nigga brain/ When I pull up to the slums with a quarter key of ‘caine.” Staples barks out a brief and manic verse, stretching out his words as if his brain too has been altered by the drugs he’s dealing. Even “Street Punks” a threatening song about credibility, puts a damper on gang life. “You ain’t ever caught a body/Know it cause you talkin’ bout it,” Staples coldly raps, more as a warning than a boast.

Amidst the stone-faced shooting and selling dope, Vince spends a lot of time contemplating love. “Lemme Know,” a breezy song that features Jhene Aiko, radiates  lust. On it, Aiko and Staples wear their desire on their sleeve, coyly purring out three dual verses together. But though they address each other as lovers, their words are full of taunts and warnings, imminent danger. On “Loca,” the love is just as palpable, but the danger is more explicit, with Vince quickly moving from seduction to demanding loyalty. “Would your courtroom lie for a nigga?” he asks his new lover with utter seriousness. As much as he contemplates and feels love, Vince refuses to detach it from his day-to-day life in the streets.

For “Summertime” Vince goes solo, crooning in autotune about a love he deeply wants but doubts is possible. The song is hard to listen to. The autotune sharpens Vince’s voice rather than smoothing it, making his typically nasally delivery gravelly. But that seems to be the point. Even when Vince is fully immersed in his emotions, his skin is still hardened by the Crip-blue waters of Long Beach.

Not everything on Summertime ‘06 works well. “Might Be Wrong,” which features singing from James Fauntleroy and a spoken word verse from Haneef Talib, who delivers his verse from prison, has its heart in the right place but it doesn’t quite fit. Its melodramatic synths and Fauntleroy’s singing are a bit too straightforward for the complex, dense atmosphere that producers No I.D., DJ Dahi, and Clams Casino have carefully curated throughout the album. The bluesy track “C.N.B” also stands out. Vince runs through a laundry list of politicized topics – gentrification, victimization, cultural appropriation – but nothing gets fully washed. Some topics demand more than a perspective.

That said, Vince Staples’ perspective is frequently fresh. Avoiding the moral high ground, he freely roams the seedy lowlands, making unflattering observations about himself, his home, and the world that made them both without resorting to soul-cleansing self-flagellation (like Kendrick Lamar) or lung-collapsing chest thumping. It’s not always an easy listen – Vince seems to enjoy street life as much as he abhors it, gleefully loading his gun just as often as he mourns his friends who have taken bullets. This moral ambiguity results in hip-hop that probably won’t please the activists or the sociologists or the Rap Geniuses, but that’s fine. For Vince Staples, hip-hop isn’t about pleasure. It’s about unflinching realism, the kind that redemption, with its happy endings and moral clarity, isn’t equipped to handle.

The past has never looked as ugly and unflattering as it has in Vince Staples’ hands, but the thrill of this dogged realism is that he also manages to make it look beautiful. There just might be some truth in nostalgia.

Nostalgia Holds Hip-Hop Back*

My friend Cameron Kunzelman wrote a piece on his hatred of nostalgia in the video game world. He basically argues that nostalgia for old games should be regarded with caution because it can be a vehicle for reproducing problematic tropes and precluding innovation. The example that resonated the most for me was Duke Nukem Forever, one of the most unnecessary sequels of all time.

I mention Cameron’s post because this kind of unquestioning yearning for the past is what I was getting at in my last post when I told commenters on hip-hop articles to stop invoking the 90’s. I’d like to expand that a little more.

To clarify, I don’t contest the claim the 90’s was an era of very groundbreaking and incredible music. I just contest the claim that that’s all that happened in the 90’s. Alongside Lauryn Hill receiving Grammys, Busta Rhymes having million dollar video budgets and P. Diddy dating J-Lo (Yes, that’s my synopsis of 90’s hip-hop), kids were growing up without parents, tough welfare reform was making it harder for people to receive [already limited] government assistance and the War on Drugs aka the War on people who were coerced into depending on drugs to make a living, was in full effect, among other things. 

I mention these few things as a reminder that 90’s hip-hop is underscored by an abundance of  pain and suffering. When that pain and suffering is ignored and the wish for the return of the 90’s comes true, we get Rick Ross, the lie that continues to grow bolder and bigger (literally). Brandon Soderberg sees Rick Ross’ persona as a misreading of the 90’s. I agree, but I think Ross’ persona is also a longing for the 90’s.

For instance, watch this video:

What stands out to me about the making of Ross’ video is that it was filmed in Calliope Projects in New Orleans, Louisiana. Those projects are noted for being the place where Master P, Silkkk the Shocker and C-Murder, hugely successful 90’s rappers, all grew up. Their success makes Calliope Projects highly symbolic.Ross was definitely tapping into the symbolism when he decided to film his video there. In fact, he makes this explicit toward the end of the video during his short monologue (starts at 7:34).

There’s nothing inherently wrong with symbolism. In fact, the residents of those projects mostly seem to have enjoyed being symbols and participating in the making of Ross’ video. That being said, I think the guy in the orange shirt toward the end of the video (he starts speaking at the 8:00 mark)  really puts things into perspective. It’s unclear whether he is responding to the video shoot or to something else (maybe the renovation of the Superdome?), but I think we can get at the heart of what he’s saying when he asks, “But what about me? What about the children?”

In essence, I think this guy is saying that it’s cool that Calliope Projects and its residents are seen as symbols of “the struggle” but what does that do for his struggle, the actual struggle? Rick Ross and his company may have given the residents of Calliope Projects a day they’ll never want to forget, but where will his crew be on the days that these residents need to forget to continue living?

By reproducing a site of struggle from the 90’s, Ross does nothing to address that struggle. This is the problem that Cameron sees in nostalgia-driven video games. Ross, like contemporary video game companies, has the resources to innovate, to reinvent, to recycle, but all he does is reproduce.

On second thought, that’s a weak comparison. Rather than comparing Ross and video game companies, we should compare video game companies and record labels. After all, even though Ross pens his own verses, at the end of the day Ross is essentially just the medium of nostalgia. Record labels, presumably responding to consumer demand, peddle Ross, so they’re more culpable; they’re the agents of nostalgia. If that’s the case, then I think we’ve arrived at the heart of Cameron’s argument: consumers.

There is a certain type of consumer who wants to reproduce the 90’s. Cameron calls this consumer a “petulant childadult.” This term isn’t directly applicable to fanatics of 90’s hip-hop because a lot of people became fans of it retroactively, but Cameron’s description of these consumers is spot-on. They collectively view the era that they are nostalgic for as a pinnacle. In other words, 90’s rap fanatics truly believe that 90’s rap is the greatest rap of all time. Accordingly, artists like Ross fashion themselves and are fashioned by record labels in ways that hark back to the 90’s in spite of the fact that the 90’s are irreproducible and probably shouldn’t be reproduced. By trying to reproduce the 90’s anyway, we get videos like this, a bizarre bid for street cred where “the street” is contrived from a street where people actually live. We don’t want this to happen again.

*Note: In the end, the role of nostalgia in contemporary hip-hop is probably impossible to grasp without a working knowledge and understanding of the power dynamics of the music industry. That being said, I tried.