on the standout catalog of Vince Staples
Since 2015, I’ve included every Vince Staples album on my end-of-year lists, and Big Fish Theory is one of my all-time favorite albums. In addition to being one of my favorite rappers, Staples has taught me a lot through his music, videos, live shows, and interviews. He has frequently shared his perspective on white people listening to his music, calling for more critical engagement in a world where consumption has led to thoughtless interactions from white listeners participating in a primarily Black art form.
In a Genius annotation for his song “Seńorita,” Staples shared, “When they look at these areas, and look at these people, they don’t see themselves. Until people really see themselves within other people, they can’t genuinely care for their betterment. It’s hard to understand and respect things that are different than us. We need to start looking at each other eye-to-eye.”
On his new album, Ramona Park Broke My Heart, Staples has solidified a message he has developed since his debut record in 2015. I have collected each of my reviews since then, with some light edits, and now including his latest in a standout catalog.
Summertime ‘06 (2015) — On his 20-song debut album, Vince Staples wonders if white people chanting his lyrics at shows are aware that he knows “they won’t go where we kick it at.” Whereas Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly (released the same year) moralizes many of the issues plaguing his mind, Staples strips away the fight between good and bad to offer striking insights: “I never vote for presidents / the presidents that change the hood are dead and green.” Staples doesn’t attempt to be a model citizen for the youth, but rather describes what it’s like to be a youth in the suburbs white Americans are afraid to talk about but whisper about nonetheless.
The album eventually proved itself twice over when a white Christian mother posted a video reading lyrics to “Norf Norf,” worrying about what her child was being “exposed to.” As the Internet rushed to mock and criticize her, Staples gave a more nuanced take, stating in an interview with NPR that he recognized in the woman a moment of concern that could possibly lead to a greater understanding of his upbringing versus her daughter’s. The experience arguably shaped his music to come.
“My teacher told me we was slaves,” Staples sings, “my mama told me we was kings.” Caught in the midst of a world arguing over the value of Black bodies, Staples confesses, “I don’t know who to listen to / I guess we’re somewhere in between.”
Big Fish Theory (2017) — Big Fish Theory took the bleak soundscapes of Yeezus and imported emotional depths to add nuance and confirm Vince Staples as a prophet of cynicism. “I used to look up in the sky, now I’m over shit,” he seethes, on an album that throws stones at rap thrones, the president, and his own demons.
On Big Fish Theory, Staples only raps the n-word when interpolating a Rick Ross song on “Homage,” stating in interviews that he intentionally wanted to remove opportunities for white listeners to grant themselves permission to use the word. In the midst of questioning his interactions with white audiences, Staples also makes space to mourn the loss of a relationship that he only allows the audience to look in on as if through a glass. There’s real pain that the listener can feel, but Staples is careful not to let you exploit it, only relate.
A man who spent the year showing in his interviews and social media presence that he cares about our way forward, Vince spends Big Fish Theory prophesying about our backwards ways: “Put him on the cross or you put him on the chain / line stays the same: he don’t look like me.” Over futuristic production that lays waste to digestible raps for entertainment’s sake, Staples scores the downfall of American myths once—and still—held sacred.
FM! (2018) — At the end of 2018, Vince Staples released FM!, an album of sorts that ran just over 22 minutes. The beachy Where’s Waldo-esque cover matched Staples’ tone throughout much of the project, one that sounded sunny (“we just wanna have fun!”) while belying the true sadness within (“we don’t wanna fuck up nothing”).
FM! delivers every punch expected from the blunt emcee who weighs every word carefully. Taking on a radio conceit to make a searing comment on the consumption of Black death in entertainment, Staples uses a sunny radio DJ set to undergird a much starker picture of the world as he sees it. “Do you really wanna know about some gangsta shit?” he accuses the audience, all the while trying to process his own grief over the loss of family and friends every direction he turns. I wrote more about FM! for DJBooth, which you can read here.
Vince Staples (2021) — On his first dispatch in nearly three years, a self-titled album that again clocks in at 22 minutes, the grainy black and white cover matches the tone: Staples is tired of wrapping his message in bright packaging. Dropping the higher vocal register he’s known for, Staples raps in monotone, delivering another warning from Long Beach over somber production from Kenny Beats. Throughout his catalog, Staples has never stopped looking in the rearview, in part because the past won’t leave him alone. The album opener, “ARE YOU WITH THAT?”, says as much, and quickly: “won’t forget that / shit I saw in my past.” Thinking about the path he escaped and how seldom it arrives for the people from his hometown, Staples’ survivor’s guilt still plagues him. “Whenever I miss those days,” he raps, he returns to the neighborhood where his friends stayed. “Some of them outside still,” he observes plainly, “some of them inside graves." Vince Staples acts as an apologia for making it out. “It’s not what you think,” he explains elsewhere, “I could be gone in a blink / I don’t wanna leave.” Throughout the album, Staples reminds listeners that he’s not here to be a beacon of hope but a truth-teller relating the realities of Ramona Park. If the emcee only releases twenty-minute statements for the rest of his career, it’s enough to build on his singular voice as an artist who never saw a bright side in sunny California.
Ramona Park Broke My Heart (2022) — Nearly doubling the length of his previous two efforts gives Staples room to stretch songs out with melodies, hooks, and a few features, creating an album that mixes the more upbeat sounds of Summertime ‘06 and FM! with the serious tone of Vince Staples, the latter of which Ramona Park is meant to be a companion to. Here, Staples names his first album after his neighborhood, the location he has always described in pointed detail. But as the title suggests, Staples sees this record as the end of an era, as he stated in a recent interview: “I feel like a lot of my work has been an anthology of my neighborhood and my past, and I think this is kinda the end of that for me.” Whatever that may mean for his future music, his fifth full length album offers a compelling entry that displays all of his strengths to this point.
This time around, Staples occasionally sounds more hopeful than he did on Vince Staples, though that hope is in no way hokey. “LEMONADE” serves as a thesis for the album’s tone and message, where he raps over a sunny chorus, “Nowhere to go when you in a cage / Sometimes life tastes bittersweet.” On “MAGIC” he sounds tentatively happy about where he is, at once reflecting on the violence in his past, his new outlook, and his hope for something different: “But that’s old news, spreading love now / sick of police lights, sick of gun sounds.” At various points he mentions teaching kids in his neighborhood or making enough to feed everyone.
Staples’ narration of violence, interpolated with heavy interludes spoken by others, never lets the listener think this isn’t real life, noting that—unlike others—he’s “out here / living raps.” His pointed language has always been a warning for audiences to not digest his music without reflection, whether or not that reflection occurs.
On the album closer “THE BLUES,” Staples continues a long tradition of a somber final track. “What’s success but guilt and stress?” he asks, a question without answer as he waves a bitter farewell to Ramona Park (“movin’ on from what you love”). He repeats three lines in each successive chorus: “money made me numb,” a sharp contrast to the early songs prioritizing money; “waiting till the Lord allows it,” the “it” being the peace he seeks outside of financial well-being; and “pray for me,” a short but direct request that ends the album and leaves listeners remembering—or realizing—that this is a human being who pays a cost for his success, weighed down with the memories of the place he left behind. Like the cover of his self-titled companion album, Staples looks the listener in the eye and wonders if you see him the way he’s always seen you.