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.