Last fall, a mother cried while reciting Vince Staples lyrics. The song was "Norf Norf," from Staples' debut album, Summertime ‘06. The mother, who didn't give her name during her rant, was heartbroken that the song had played on top 40 radio. "This is what our children are being exposed to," she wept, as her children played on a couch in the background. She rattled off the lyrics, including lines like "my crips lurkin' / don't die tonight," as part of a long-winded lament over the state of the culture. Rap is often used in this way: as the sharpest weapon at hand for a warrior in an elegiac battle against the culture's perceived failings.
In response, Staples took an interesting approach in a series of now-deleted tweets. He explained that the woman seemed to be confused about the context of the song, and said it was this lack of context that had made her frightened. He endorsed the woman's right to dictate what is or isn't appropriate for her children, and anchored his comments in a desire to see such misunderstandings lead to progressive dialogue. It wasn't an entirely surprising approach for Staples. The 24-year-old rapper is a lot of things: clever, funny, contradictory. But chief among them, he is a thoughtful and nuanced thinker, someone who takes into account not only how his music is presented, but also how he'll eventually have to answer for it. In interviews, he is a demonstrative and eager conversationalist, bouncing from one topic to the next with a sharpness that is both dizzying and engaging.
If you are lucky enough to be from anywhere considered the Hood, and if you or your people have lived there long enough, you might understand the need for archives. There are, of course, the visible costs to gentrification: People are displaced, old haunts become new luxuries, a city eventually swallows the bodies that made it exciting and interesting. But another major, often unaddressed victim of gentrification is generational memory. If you cannot drag someone to the places of your past and show them where you were once a younger you, they will not believe your story. When a person's story becomes impossible to believe, it becomes harder to find empathy for that person within ourselves.
The work of Vince Staples is also the work of a Hood archetype: the griot on a porch or outside of a corner store who keeps the oral tradition of a place alive. The most commonly understood rendition of this is the character of the Mayor in Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing. Played by Ossie Davis, the Mayor is presented as someone both deeply flawed but still somewhat loved. He had lived in the community long enough to have finally found purpose among his graveyard of regrets: transmitting information to the Hood's younger inhabitants, even when they dismiss him. One reading of the Mayor is a simple trope about respecting elders, and I'm sure that's part of the narrative. But another has to do with the type of institutional knowledge that comes with living a life in a place—particularly if it is a place under siege by violence both structural and otherwise.
Staples is fulfilling our need for storytellers who catalog and pass down information so that cultural references and points in geography can live on, even when the geography itself doesn't.
Vince Staples is 24 years old. If we are to take his lyrical content at anything close to face value—and I do—he's lived a full life already. His music often doesn't make any claims in the way of morality, or stand on high and offer down a judgment on what is right and wrong, which makes him both fascinating, and an easy target for the people who insist that, when rap music unravels tales of darkness, it should offer some light at the end of the tunnel. What stands out in "Norf Norf," to me, is the final verse. It highlights what Staples does best as an MC: dexterous flow, with an avalanche of claustrophobic rhymes that still find a way to tuck themselves safely into a beat. But it also highlights what he does with memory and story. He summons Boyz N the Hood, a movie that was released two years before he was born, to talk of how Ricky, the slain football star at the center of the movie, might have lived had he chosen a different running pattern while his attackers were firing at him.
Coldchain Best thang smokin' out the city
Ridin' 'round wit' the same shotgun that shot Ricky
Lil' nigga should've zig-zagged
Then he got his back wet
All of this seems small, I'm sure. But, at least in Summertime '06, Staples does this all the time. His community is present in references that are also universal, which doesn't distract from the truth that he is a deeply harrowing storyteller. Nothing seems urgent until it is, or until you are truly inside of his head with seemingly no way out.
World-building as an act might not seem like a revolutionary practice. Writers and artists have long been telling tales of where they come from and who they are, all while facing an audience that doesn’t always look like them. It can be argued that the needle of empathy hasn't moved fast enough: Poets, for example, have been creating stark work about life under various political regimes for decades, and yet, after Donald Trump's election, many of us were told that we were somehow suddenly needed "now more than ever." Still, I've given up on the idea that people will reach empathy without finding a path through stories that don't sound or look like the ones they know. There isn't a course you can take, or a type of certificate you can get. You find yourself in someone's world with no way out for a brief moment. And, if you're open to it, you emerge with a different understanding of who they are.
What I think Staples meant when he addressed the Christian mother who wept over his song was that she didn't allow herself to step into the world that his song was building, stopping instead at the door of the language used to build that world. People often turn up their nose at the mode of presentation before they even get to the heart of a story, and this seems to happen more in rap music than it does in any other type of music, or in black film more than any other type of film (although, to be fair, less in black film than it used to). The way black stories are sometimes approached—tentatively, and with distance—is most upsetting because those stories, sometimes passed down to younger and more skilled storytellers, are the ones that keep worlds alive.
This archivism is why I was so fascinated by the relentlessness of Vince Staples as a writer and world-creator in his early work: He seemed so intent on archiving the vastness and layered Hood at large, not only for himself, but as a real challenge to every listener. Beyond that—and perhaps most important—he treats Long Beach, California, with a type of gentleness which makes the city's architecture feel like it could be your own, right outside the window, miles away. The work in writing about and talking about home is, in some ways, to make your home feel like it could be anywhere, even though it couldn't. It's cool to talk about where you're from, sure. But when you take on a large platform, the work becomes more valuable when you're also passing along something real—something people can keep in their pockets, or something people outside the neighborhood can learn from.
Staples' newest effort, the stunning Big Fish Theory, was released last month. It is different in tone and approach from Summertime '06, and also from last year's Prima Donna EP, though it builds on the latter's narrative of fame and decline. Here, Staples is more measured, even more reflective than he was on his past efforts, looking somewhat internally rather than outward. It's a work that asks a larger question about how rappers are seen and how they see themselves—and this is also deeply valuable. It's a rap album that is, in part, about fame and class, but not in the grating way that famous people writing about fame tend to favor. It's nuanced and vulnerable, and Staples is freshly energetic in his verses, stripping away some of the haunting and precise monotone delivery of his earlier recordings. It's a triumph in that it shows a young artist evolving almost seamlessly into another era of his work. In the case of Staples, it cements him as one of the best and most intriguing young rappers currently making music, still unafraid of artistic risk.
Staples is concerned about the relationship between the audience and the performer, which also helps explain why he responded to the crying mother in the way he did. This relationship walks a fine line, and Staples seems to articulate all aspects of it well. On his newer work, Staples encourages the listener to consider the space they take up, both inside their own mind and inside the mind of the artist. But Staples is also concerned with a kind of journalism; his early work, especially, feels like an act of chronicling the histories of places he's lived. This is valuable work, as Staples emerges as a sort of on-the-ground beat reporter—whether the ground is his neighborhood, or his own mental and emotional landscape.
This is complicated, sure, as it must be. Staples is leading people by the hand through places, feelings, and thoughts that may often jar—particularly for listeners who hope to use top 40 radio as an escape while they're driving the kids to school. But the argument Staples is making isn't an argument for comfort; it is an argument for urgency. The way he tells stories of obsessive details is what catches listeners unawares, and might even open them up. I'm not arguing that Staples alone is creating widespread empathy for the Hood, of course. Still, Staples is fulfilling our continued need for griots, for storytellers who catalog and pass down information so that cultural references and points in geography can live on, even when the geography itself doesn't. In the case of Staples, that he is also doing this while showing calculated vulnerability means he's creating an even more accessible path for entry, even if some unfamiliar listeners cringe when they hear a line about violence (both physical and emotional) being detailed in the way that Staples sometimes does.
It does bear mentioning that in Do the Right Thing, the Mayor doesn't save anyone's life. I suppose the great thing about the film is that, like Staples, it leaves the moral judgments up to the people taking it in. There isn't a neat conclusion—a small corner of a city just catches fire for a brief and treacherous night. And in 20 years, maybe someone would live to tell the story of that night to someone 10 years younger than them. And then that person would grow to tell it to someone else. And the fire would grow bigger, and the violence would become more righteous. And at the end of it all there might be a triumph so big we forget that, at the root, a trashcan was thrown through a pizza shop window because someone died. As always, it depends on who is telling the story.