Cuz It’s All a Nigga Got: On Vince Staples, Guns and Nihilism

ImageThough G-Unit’s song “My Buddy” is one of rap’s most memorable songs about guns, in the song, guns are aggressively one-dimensional. Essentially serving as accessories, their only real function is to amplify G-Unit’s street cred. Nas’ “Got Ur Self A Gun” is less fetishistic, but the resulting message is the same: people with guns are people to be feared and respected. On Vince Staples’ new album Shyne Coldchain II, guns don’t appear as mere props. Tying his love and need for guns to the stark absence of any other forms of security, Vince develops guns as a rich and multifaceted symbol. For me, how he accomplishes this is interesting in terms of symbolism and narrative technique. 

The first thing that makes this accomplishment so noteworthy is the sheer fact of Vince’s characteristic obliqueness. Even when he’s being clever, Vince always maintains his poker face, speaking at a constant slant as if he’s being wiretapped. For instance, on “Humble,” he raps, “Daddy had us contact high off of crack smoke/Had to get it crackin’ with the 7 cause the MAC broke/Wrist fucked up, couldn’t make it to practice.” Though he doesn’t say it outright, in this brief aside Vince reveals that he spent so much time shooting guns as a teenager that he ruined his wrist and ruined his usual gun. It’s not uncommon for teenagers to injure their wrists through sports or masturbation or plain old misfortune, but Vince Staples injured his wrists because he was always having to shoot his gun. His life was intensely precarious at all times.

That is utterly depressing. Nevertheless, despite this depressing revelation, Vince keeps it moving. These kinds of oblique references are found throughout the album and throughout Vince’s body of work. A lot of rap’s most-praised storytellers are heralded for how vivid and evocative their stories are. Vince goes the opposite way, filling his tales with silhouettes, shadows and ghosts. Obliqueness isn’t for everybody but it works excellently for Vince.

For Shyne Coldchain II in particular, this obliqueness is important to note because Vince develops guns as a symbol by actively focusing on other symbols. It’s tempting to call these other symbols foils, but I think Vince is doing something much more interesting.  For instance, on  “Turn” Vince spends the verses accosting religion and other forms of authority, noting how god, school and family – the biggest forms of authority when you’re young – have all failed him and failed themselves. Vince then hammers in this rampant failure during the chorus, chanting, “When it comes down to it, know I’m out here shooting, cuz it’s all a nigga got, cuz it’s all a nigga got.” It’s tempting to see guns and gangs as the replacement for all the forms of authority that have failed Vince, but I don’t think that’s quite the case. Vince has discarded trust in authority altogether. Guns and gangs aren’t foils. As proven to Vince by the imprisonment of his father, whose previous life as a gang member is detailed on “Nate,” guns and gangs are just as characterized by failure as everything else: there is no contrast. So though Vince cherishes his guns, they’re really just another empty, meaningless symbol. When it comes down to it, Vince Staples is a nihilist.

What’s interesting about his nihilism is how Vince lives through it instead of resorting to narratives of rugged individualism. Given the systemic failure of everything in his life, you would think he’d attribute his success to himself à la “Started From the Bottom.” But there’s no narratives of self-reliance here. Because Vince Staples sees the world for what it is, he has to see himself with that same raw clarity. He’s just a guy who’s been lucky enough to shoot them before they shot him.

I don’t have any reliable way of knowing Vince Staples’ self-image, but on Earl Sweatshirt’s song, “Centurion,” Vince raps, “I can’t wait/ ’til the money comin’ in/ Spend it all on guns and rims/ I ain’t nothin’ but a nigga/ Ain’t no reason to pretend,” so I don’t think I’m too far off. If this is in fact his self-image, it’s easy to dismissively say that Vince has self-hate or that he’s a victim of circumstances. These are the typical mainstream narratives that people use when they want to make sense of the lives of people on the margins. But I think that the whole point of Shyne Coldchain 2 is that both of those narratives look at the world without considering the values that are embedded in their respective worldviews.

For instance, people who advocate self-love overestimate the availability of the resources to develop such love. For Vince, religion, family, school and even Common (“Trunk Rattle”) just can’t think outside of their privileges. Becoming a good student or a good kid or a faithful churchgoer or a positive rapper takes more than pure effort; it takes the privilege to even be able to make those efforts. On the opposite end of the spectrum, people who argue that folks like Vince are victims of circumstance overestimate how defining circumstances actually are. In contrast to that argument, Vince describes a world in which people are actively working through their circumstances despite an utter lack of privileges. These people don’t have it easy and they should have it better, but they definitely aren’t victims.

In the end, because he values nothing in particular, Vince Staples is perfectly equipped to describe his world. And while his description won’t flatter anyone, even himself, it’s a description that everyone needs to hear. Listen to the album here. Even if you don’t care about guns or nihilism, the dude can rap his ass off, so there’s always that.


Rap is the New Race: How The Hustle Obscures the Struggle

While 2012 brought us some of Kanye’s best verses since 2010’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, helping to erase the painful memory of 2011’s Watch the Throne, it also brought us some of his most despicable, insidious lines:

You know white people: get money don’t spend it/Or maybe they, get money buy a business/I’d rather buy 80 gold chains and go ig’nant/I know Spike Lee gone kill me, but let me finish!/Blame it on the pigment…

– “Clique”

I’m living 3 dreams: Biggie Smalls, Dr. King, Rodney King!

– “New God Flow”

In both of these songs, Kanye uses the fact of his blackness to elide the fact of his immense wealth. It is easy to dismiss these lyrics as further evidence of Kanye’s allegedly increasing arrogance, but I would like to situate these lyrics into the history of rappers collectively downplaying their socioeconomic status via their race, and then argue that rap itself has supplanted race as what Walter Benn Michaels calls a “technology of  mystification.”

Hustle Blood

All artists hustle. The necessity of the hustle is probably most brutally demonstrated by buskers. Unaided by advertisements, art agents or authority, they take their art directly to their audiences. Even when they are privileged enough to have a home to return to at the end of a long day, the relationship between their art and their audiences is still both highly intimate and highly saturated with the pressure to perform. In that indeterminate interval between the start of a performance and its imminent end via the arrival of a train or the disinterest of the audience or the arrival of the police (!), the artist must press forward, performing as if all conditions are ideal. The artists who fold to such external forces are hobbyists. The artists who don’t are hustlers.

As rap commercially bloomed in the late 80s and later flourished in the 90s, its origins in the inherent struggle of inner-city life eventually became its grand narrative. In other words, the struggle became a double signifier indicating actual life in the ghetto and life trying to make it in a genre that didn’t quite exist yet. As the genre grew even further, both in terms of the number of practicing artists in the field and wider cultural impact, the second meaning of the struggle started to trump the first, eventually colonizing it almost completely (A strong example of an attempt to capitalize off of this shift in meaning is SBK Records’ publishing of a fake autobiography for Vanilla Ice). The gradual result of this shift in meaning was the idea that all rappers are hustlers.

The problem with this notion of all rappers as hustlers is that it just isn’t true. The Jay-Z of 1992, a young kid from Marcy Projects trying to sell drugs to survive, faces very different problems than the Jay-Z of 2013, a media mogul, entrepreneur and renowned entertainer. Mediated by years of success, established credibility and the enabling triple threat of money, power and privilege, the Jay-Z of 2013 can overwhelmingly drown out the external factors that increase the pressure to perform. Even better, he can make audiences come to him. He may chant “all black everything,” but he’ll never be a Black Swan.

"Runaway" Single Artwork

“Runaway” Single Artwork

Similarly, despite a strange fascination with ballerinas, the Kanye West of 2013 is even less likely to become a Black Swan. Not only is he far from the streets, as indicated by his position on “the throne,” but he was never very proximal to them in the first place: he had a middle class upbringing. In other words, there is no College Dropout without the resources to attend college in the first place. In the end, the idea of the rapper as a hustler regardless of socioeconomic past or present is what enables Kanye to downplay his current and originary socioeconomic statuses and emphasize his race above all else. This is problematic.

Obsolete Technology

In his review of the book Who Cares About the White Working Class, Walter Benn Michaels makes the case that both right-wing and left-wing approaches to race facilitate neoliberal practices. Crucially, he writes:

…one of the great uses of racism was (and is) to induce poor white people to feel a crucially and specious fellowship with rich white people; one of the great uses of anti-racism is to make poor black people feel a crucial equally and specious relationship with rich black people.”

Given these uses of race by both racists and anti-racists alike, Michaels contends that race is a “technology of mystification.” His particular interest is how race problematically erases differential class experiences between members of the same race . I am also interested in this, but I’d like to take his argument a little further. My contention is that while rappers use race as a technology of mystification (And demystification. See “Mr. Nigga,” by Mos Def.), through this idea of the universal hustler, rap itself has become a technology of mystification. Furthermore, when it comes to downplaying class, rap has replaced race as the preferred tool.

Rethinking the Bottom

Though I started with Kanye, this isn’t an indictment of him. This is an indictment of the practice of rap and how that practice neglects the people at the bottom. “Started From the Bottom,” the new single by Drake is a good recent example. The song gives a brief and morose history of Drake’s ascension to the top, emphasizing the distance traveled from “the bottom.” The song is interesting and I actually like its mood and its brevity, but “the bottom” as used in the song casually glosses over the particularities of Drake’s fairly interesting life story, and rehashes the trite and mystifying narrative of the rapper as hustler. Drake is able to get away with such careless use of “the bottom” solely because of how rap is currently practiced.

Yelawolf’s song “Growin’ Up The Gutter” offers a nice contrast. In the third verse, we get a story about ascending from the dregs, but for the rest of the song, especially in the chorus, “the gutter” (the struggle), isn’t just used figuratively. It refers to an actual site of struggle, a locality where people are truly hanging on for dear life, not just being stressed or annoyed. This is responsible rap.

To clarify, this is not an attempt to ask rappers to “keep it real.” The argument for realism and authenticity in rap is a stupid notion that can only stifle creativity and silence interesting stories. In fact, some of my favorite rappers – MF DOOM, RiFF RaFF, Danny Brown, Azealia Banks, Royce Da 5’9″ –  say absurdly fictional things. My ultimate concern regards the people whose experiences rap claims to represent and empathize with, including rappers themselves. In a world where rap is increasingly the most powerful form of representation for both the people at the bottom and at the top , for everyone’s sake, “the struggle,” can’t just be some empty metaphor for trying to be successful. It absolutely has to mean something beyond, “Life ain’t easy.” Until it does, we’re going to continue to have some of the most talented artists of the day rapping some of the most inane lyrics of all time. Now that was an indictment.

Further Reading

Nostalgia Holds Hip-Hop Back