Shark Bait, Shark Bite
Ever since his major-label breakthrough back in 2015, Vince Staples has been muddying the waters. From the shark-infested streets of Long Beach, California, to the industry that stereotypes and sectionalises his music, the 27-year old has established himself as an artist that holds up a wide mirror to his surroundings, all while retreating into a murky space suspended between both fame and obscurity.
This position at the fringes of the mainstream has led Staples to double down on a style defined by gritty storytelling and avant-garde production while cultivating a fuck-you persona that trickles down from his music. Riposting "I’m on a new level / I am too cultured and too ghetto" on 2017's Big Fish Theory before tweeting that he deserved to win the Grammy for best album that year, to the random corporate collab of a Sprite sponsorship or the poker-faced sarcasm of a controversy-baiting marketing ruse for the release of 'Get the Fuck Off My Dick’, each of these provocations (all struck in turn with a deadpan sincerity) have themselves become a hallmark of his personalised brand of inscrutability.
So with the release of a self-titled project, billed as a portrait of one of rap’s best landscape artists, comes a dialogue between Vince and the scenery that grounds his hot-wired mind. The result is an excellent album that lingers on the surface of the same dark waters he’s been treading for years, in which the grainy realities of life and death in Long Beach are glimpsed in vivid flashes from opaque depths. Vince Staples offers no strikingly new biographical revelations, with Staples facing the same well-worn streets he grew up on amidst the circling gangs of the West Coast. Two skits that ebb at the margins both project a haze of details, in which the outlines of a gun or a cop car emerge amidst the vagaries of chance and whirlpools of emotion. With trademark brevity, Vince condenses the world around him into hardened truths: (“quidditch / catching snitches / do him vicious”), (“n*ggas rather get flipped than go flip burgers”), narrating an unsparing universe of certainties shrouded by the arbitrary suddenness of death. Almost every song plays like a vigil to ward off the inevitable and remember the deceased, trading in nihilistic bars that shrug off all sentimentality.
Reckoning with his success over a stomach-ache of a beat, 'Law of Averages' is a sour look at his status as an exception to the circumstances that sink most of those around him, even as he remains subject to the same rules pervading the city he remains unable to escape from. And as the paranoia from his fame bleeds into the habitual fears that anticipate the barrel of a gun and the washed-out hues of police sirens, it is only in the acidic contradictions of lines like “keep my shit off safety / you know you can never be too safe” that he can take a breath. These are close-chested confessionals, veiled griefs that arrive without ceremony. In the past, a line about being at the beach with a gun in his trunks might have arrived within a dark punchline. Now he just sounds tired, jet-lagged by touring and unwilling to refract his experience through another concept album.
Kenny Beats, who handled the sun-and-gunshots aesthetic of previous LP FM!’s radio kicks, once again proves his chameleonic grasp for a cohesive soundscape, providing submerged samples and a candlelit mise-en-scene that accentuates the emotional silhouettes of poker-faced lyricism. Vince’s nasal voice has always scraped the line between sharp-edged raps and melodic drawls, and this album hones in on the fractures to a heartbroken effect. The heavy footfalls of 'Taking Trips' and skittering drums on 'Lil Fade' both bring a low-key intensity to the affair, but neither pierce the twilit ambience that the album maintains from start to finish.
From a brief runtime of only 10 slim tracks, Vince Staples could give the false impression of being a mere placeholder in the face of the upcoming LP that Vince announced would release later this year, alongside a Netflix show reportedly in the pipeline. While it likely will not be remembered as Vince Staples' best project, this latest record may well be his most layered and personal statement ever. With a final track wrapping up with a vocal clip that skirts the perimeter of Long Beach with the windows down, pacing the same territory and blurring where it begins and ends. "Tryna make it in the game you gotta know the glitches" Vince advises, navigating himself like the kid he once was through a level on the PSOne that needs to be run through multiple times to be cracked. It encompasses the experience of re-listening to this album, where the broken code that runs through the landscape starts to glint amidst all the hardware with every rerun. And the nostalgia for what once was overtakes with painful clarity.
- 8.2 -
'Are You With That', 'The Law of Averages', 'The Shining'
Sam Harding is a student at York and an enthusiast of mosh pits. He is trying to marry music with writing but is running out of onomatopoeia. Life soundtrack includes underground rap and electronic bleep bloops. Thanks for reading! Slow Motion Panic Masters is a music, arts and culture website created and edited by Ben Wheadon, a literature student and musician based at the University of Oxford. He edited this article and is a Fleet Foxes shill. We want to write about your music. Follow our Instagram and send us a DM. We’ll contact you if we like what we hear. In the meantime, you can like us on Facebook and subscribe to our mailing list below to stay up to date with our ramblings.