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Vince Staples’s Summertime ‘06 is the hardest album to hit the rap game in a decade, maybe more. Since “hard” is a buzzword that rappers freely claim and/or misuse whenever their supposed authenticity feels threatened, let me be clear: the last hip-hop album both to project austerity this severe and to make it work aesthetically without sacrificing musical appeal was… Clipse’s Hell Hath No Fury, back in 2006? Desolate, sinister, coolheaded and conceited, Hell Hath No Fury sounds fantastic ten years after the fact, an undeniable noir-rap touchstone. Summertime ‘06 belongs in its class. From Staples’s pained, jarring voice to the sour beats themselves, the album erodes like sandpaper and abrades like a rake on a chalkboard. Thematically, it’s pretty grim, too. It’s not a fun album, by any means. Yet none of that diminishes its stark power.
Vince Staples is a rapper from Long Beach who fits a tradition of violent Southern California gangsta rap yet also expresses profound discomfort with that tradition. Initially affiliated with the Odd Future posse as well as Pittsburgh’s white party-rap fixture Mac Miller, who jumpstarted Staples’s career by giving him collections of beats for mixtape use as well as touring with him in 2013, Staples has in the past released a bunch of mixtapes as well as an excellent EP in 2014 called Hell Can Wait, but Summertime ’06 — his official debut, out since June — is the breakthrough, and it should be. Technically, it’s a double album, divided into two discs with ten tracks each, but since Staples is a ferocious miniaturist whose songs usually hover between two and three minutes, it lasts just under an hour; in its clipped flow, in the way these severely disciplined songs seem to sprout out of nowhere, one after another after another, the album feels sprawling and contained at once. Its evocation of the Long Beach ghetto as one enormous, terrifying place also feels sprawling and contained at once.
“I’m a gangsta Crip/fuck gangsta rap,” he declares early on, and here we have the basic paradox of Staples’s persona. Wait a minute, you say, isn’t this gangsta rap? By his own account, he openly participates in the so-called thug life — he threatens rivals, waves guns around, coldly describes horrific acts of violence and gang warfare. But in dissing gangsta rap as a genre he first makes a calculated boast about his authenticity, claiming that the genre romanticizes atrocities that he’s experienced for real unlike the rest of you fake MCs, and second, more importantly, he accuses the genre of profiting from the romanticization of such atrocities and hence indirectly contributing to institutional racism, of brutalizing a black audience being sold racist stereotypes of themselves and entertaining a white audience titillated by the stereotypes in question. So he’s also conflicted and angry about the thug life. He’s always repeating that he was born into this lifestyle, that he had no choice, and you can hear how suffocated he feels. “I’m a gangsta like my granny.” “Broken home/all I had was my homeboys.” “The police kill us so we made up our own laws.” “They found another dead body in the alley.” “See this weight is on my shoulders/pray Jehovah lift me up.” “My feelings told me love is real/but feelings known to get you killed.” “One way to tell if I’m breathing/on three let’s jump off the roof/on three let’s jump off the roof.” Less interested in narrative than exposé, although he has quite an eye for detail and can certainly tell a story when he wants to, Staples writes simple descriptive songs. Nearly every one addresses a specific aspect of impoverished African-American life or a specific emotional response to such. Taken as a whole, the album functions as an associative tour of the ghetto while reporting on gangsta pathology from the grisly psychological inside.
From the buzzing, menacing bass riff that drives “Lift Me Up” to the industrial refrigerator beeps closing “‘06”, Summertime ‘06 shudders with neurotic tension. Producer No I.D. (with intermittent contributions from Clams Casino and DJ Dahi) fashions for Staples a template so minimal, so understated, and so vivid that the album hangs together musically start to finish even though hummable hooks are few and far between. Rattling, scratchy percussion dominates, often centered around a rigid bassline plus various hisses and screeches muscling in and messing with the rhythm. Even when the occasional melodic keyboard loop raises its head, as with the tinkleblips on “Street Punks,” or the simulated bells on “Get Paid,” or the piano lurking throughout “C.N.B.,” it’s eerie, off-putting. Note how the piano in “Señorita” never quite reaches melodic resolution, how the vocal loop and/or keyboard moan in “Jump off the Roof” never even touches the tonic note. Eerie whispered female voices provide choruses, heightening rather than sweetening the music’s bitter tang. At first it all sounds too bleak, too harsh, too narrow, too alienated; you feel like the album might wear thin after a few plays. But because the minimalist command slams and bites throughout, because the sheer number of songs keeps them all feeling fresh, because all that dissonant percussion ends up sounding pretty cool, it doesn’t. Standing above it all, hectoring his way through a landscape of housing projects and empty parking lots, is Staples, whose voice reaches a sharp level of intensity the beats only hint at. Like many recent rappers who mean to depict the real terror of ghetto violence, he raps in a higher pitch and a jumpier tone than most of his predecessors — the convention in gangsta rap is to project a smug, relaxed mastery, which Staples markedly avoids. Anxiety bleeds from this music. The cold sweat is audible.
I don’t entirely agree with Staples’s attacks on “gangsta rap” no matter how complicit the entertainment industry is in the institutional racism that makes the mere existence of such a genre possible, because rapping about the perks of the thug life and actually living it are two very different things. While granting that the vast majority of the crime lords and obscenely wealthy hedonists clogging up hip-hop radio play characters so shallow and so callous their music sinks under the weight of its own glorified brutality, I insist that there exists a plethora of exceptions whose music works in subtler, more fascinating cultural ways than haters have imagination to discern, and that most of these exceptions have gone so far pop, attracting a large enough and diverse enough audience, that the relevant concerns are now totally different. Staples hasn’t — strong and compelling and immediate though his music is, there’s no pop appeal, no outreach, unless you happen to be an aesthete who enjoys well-constructed raps and punchy beats. At times the austerity on Summertime ‘06 skates pretty close to parsimony, almost as if Staples were espousing a rather tedious sort of purism, reducing his music to the bare ugly bones because everything else is, sniff, excess. On the other hand, Staples’s attacks on the gangsta world hit home, painfully. Absolutely he’s tormented, and that anguish comes out in his voice. Throughout the record, he keeps zigzagging back and forth, equally incapable of accepting the thug life and of tearing himself away. First he’s angry, then he’s introspective, now he’s blaming the white power structure for his brutalization, now he’s shooting up rival gangs. He plays the conflicted gangster in a way that emphasizes how the role, period, was forced upon him by socioeconomic circumstances beyond his control. He plays a nervous kid rather than a sentimental tough guy. The austerity suits his persona, and in context it packs an emotional charge you’d think impossible given how spare the arrangements are. Anyway, purism is a ridiculous accusation to level at an album stripped to its bare ugly bones just to amplify the musical impact.
Summertime ‘06 is a powerful statement about race and violence in America; it’s also a generous, overflowing profusion of so many excellent rap songs it’s hard to pick a favorite. Right now mine is “Jump off the Roof”, probably the scariest and most desperate song here as well as the lightest on its feet. But the slinky “3230” does the trick too. “Lift Me Up” got stuck in my head for a week. It goes on.