Trauma has left its mark on Vince Staples. "You can ask anybody that knows me—I hate when it's loud around me," he intones in an interview with Noisey. "I grew up in a very loud place. I heard a lot of ambulances, a lot of helicopters, a lot of gunshots that never made it to the news [...] Niggas who know me like 'Vince, you don't have fun!' I'm like 'Nah, I don't have time for that.'" Summertime '06, Staples's major-label debut, is a record of trauma—Staples plays the role of war correspondent, grimly chronicling the violence endemic to his hometown of Long Beach. It is an extraordinary record, among the best rap debuts in recent memory, a Homeric tale of war and a paean to lost innocence.
Staples's rise to fame has been slow: his early-2010s features with Odd Future brought him critical acclaim and showed his status as one of the few whose verbal and poetic talents match (and sometimes exceed) OF's lyrical-genius-in-residence Earl Sweatshirt. It took some time for Vince to truly find his voice and to differentiate his work from OF's distinctive sound and gross-out subject matter, but by the time of his 2014 mixtape Shyne Coldchain, Vol. 2 it became clear that he was an artist in decisive control of his message and aesthetic. This aesthetic manifests itself most notably in the very layout of the record: though it clocks in at an hour overall, it is split into two thematically-separate discs.
Vince's voice is high, raspy, cutting; he wields it brutally and swiftly, never wasting a syllable. "He has gills," Mac Miller avers about Vince's intense, near-breathless flow, and the normally laconic Earl Sweatshirt speaks in awe: "He's the best rapper, dude—he takes the shortest amount of time to do the tightest shit. I just like to keep Vince around me when I'm writing shit. 'Cause I think he's better than me. It makes me try real hard." Vince's raps are less ostentatious in their poetry than most of his peers, but his analogies are painfully vivid ("Bandana brown like the dope daddy shootin' in the kitchen"), his laments moving ("They never taught me how to be a man / only how to be a shooter"), and his humor as grim as his subject matter: there is a sort of hollow-eyed amusement in threats like "Waiter still ain't brought the chopsticks, should've brought the chopper."
Summertime switches rapidly, at times dizzyingly, between perspectives: the only constant is Long Beach itself, its influence so profound that it might as well be the main character. Its landmarks—Ramona Park, Artesia Boulevard, Staples's childhood home of 3230 Poppy Street—serve as anchors for and witnesses to the suffering the record so starkly portrays. Race, and the suffering present in America's inner-cities, is inextricably linked with the album's message. Vince despises the notoriously violent Long Beach police department, doubts Obama's promises of hope and change, and reviles white America's urge to snuff out black lives while ravenously consuming black culture:
Don't shake my hand unless you're passing payment
Keep your saluations, I need my forty acres
Why they hate us? Why they want to rape us for our culture?
They greet, defeat us, bleed us, then they leave us for the vultures
They break the brilliant off with millions, tryna break our focus
More tan the man, the more alone and hopeless
The video to lead single 'Señorita' portrays a dead-end street in shambles, its occupants (all of color) felled one-by-one by invisible gunshots, before revealing the scene as a museum exhibit, watched by an immaculately groomed and coiffed white family. It is stark, Lynchian, its strength of symbolism powerful.
Staples's best work ('Trunk Rattle', 'Blue Suede') combined minimalist, bleak beats with an unrelenting, near-breathless flow, and Summertime perfects this formula. Def Jam producer emeritus No I.D. handles the majority of the production: his beats are ominous and dense, backed by unnerving synth chords and spare yet hard-hitting percussion. "Street Punks" could've been a cut off the Clipse's Hell Hath no Fury, with a looping minor-key melody and some boom-bap bass drums, while the smeared and jangly guitar of "3230" sounds like Hail to the Thief-era Radiohead. Clams Casino contributes three outstanding beats (including the truly spectacular 'Summertime'), and rising talents DJ Dahi and Christian Rich round out the rest of the production team. An odd yet effective team of featured artists provides backup—swooping vocals from fellow No I.D. protege Snoh Aalegrah, a whispered guest verse from experimentalist Kilo Kish, and brief cameos from longtime collaborators Joey Fatts and Earl Sweatshirt.
Single 'Norf Norf' stands out: Vince's tales of the drug trade oscillate between pathos and hostility, from "Hit the corner, make a dollar flip / split the dollars with my mama children" directly into "folks need Porsches, hoes need abortions / I just need y'all out of my business / never no problem, spraying, no witnesses." The chorus, at first a repeated affirmation "I ain't never ran from nothing but the police" to a strangled yelp "northside Long Beach, northside Long Beach" is irresistably catchy despite its dead-eyed fatalism.
Summertime '06 is brilliant through-and-through, its successes triumphant and its few missteps slight. The days of Ruthless Records and Death Row are long over, but Staples is carrying on the legacy of LA gangster rap: this is a brutal, cold, and at times heartbreakingly sad record. Staples has used his trauma to forge one of the best records of the year, both love letter and jeremiad to a sick neighborhood in a sicker country.