Though 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.