By Nick Sligh
The eponymous fourth studio album from North-side Long Beach’s Vince Staples has finally arrived. Three years after 2018’s “FM!,” Vince is back, with his trusted sidekick and producer Kenny Beats alongside him.
With only one feature on the tracklist — the talented vocalist Fousheé on “Take Me Home” — the spotlight is entirely focused on Staples, a fitting attribute for his self-titled release. Since “Summertime ’06,” Staples has largely excluded features from his projects. Essentially the entire album is just Kenny’s beats and Vince’s bars: a simple but effective combination.
The extremely short runtime of just over 20 minutes (under 20 excluding interludes) brings a variety of effects on the outcome, some additive and some limiting. The album is an easy listen, showcasing a dynamic collection that could suit any listening experience. Nothing is too abrasive (an effect he has produced masterfully in the past), but Vince keeps everything interesting and varied enough to keep a listener drawn in. Especially for our modern shortened attention spans, the length is convenient — making the listening enjoyable.
However, for an album dominated by bleak themes with occasional comic relief, it might have been beneficial for listener reception to build more background and expand the personal and narrative foundation of the album. Luckily for Staples’ long-time fans, the content is certainly not unexpected, and it’s easy to follow along with. These fans have fortunately become acquainted with Vince’s character over time, so no introduction is necessary. But for people getting their first exposure to Vince, the short runtime disallows the same depth of connection to Staples’ story and persona that has been present in past works. Not every album needs to have a self-contained and fully-fleshed-out story arc, but I think that this is a case where just a few more tracks and a couple more stylistic choices would have been welcome.
Thematically, Vince’s harsh lyrics create an intriguing juxtaposition against the smooth, laid-back instrumentals and nonchalant deliveries. Staples’ upbringing seems to have numbed him rather than left a stinging pain. His brash authenticity and unconcerned recollection of trauma deliver unique life portraits. For example, on the intro track “Are You With That?” Staples raps over the relaxed beat with lyrics that are anything but that: “We was them kids that played / All in the street, followin’ leads, of n***** who lost they ways / Some of them outside still, some of them inside graves.”
The juxtaposition between production and lyrical content is intriguing, but the album could have benefited from a wider variety of content, deliveries and production choices. The sound of the album has some variation but largely sees Vince sticking within a narrow range, relying on simple sonic foundations and undifferentiated deliveries. Some of Vince’s best music is more elaborately produced, allowing his personality and character to be expressed more fully. Past songs like “Nate” and “Thought About You” delivered much of the same content that is on this album (sometimes in the same numb tone), but in a drastically more captivating way due to the complementary production that is full of soul, emotion and character.
Production is handled almost exclusively by Kenny Beats, who paints the backdrop for Vince’s largely dark but nonchalant street stories. No production choices on the album blew me away, as some of Vince’s historic production choices have, but there also wasn’t anything that significantly brought down the album. The production served its purpose, providing the background that Vince was hoping for with its smooth and mellow nature.
The consistency across the album is noteworthy, with no tracks feeling out of place or out of a fairly tight range of quality. The three-track run beginning the album constitutes its best songs, in chance consecutive order. “Are You With That?,” ”Law of Averages” and “Sundown Town” are the best executions of the album’s thematics and sounds, with some of the best production and most captivating storytelling on display.
For an artist as talented and prolific over the past decade as Vince, I don’t think that this release will stand out when his discography is examined in retrospect. Given the genuinely high quality of this eponymous album, it is truly just a compliment to his artistry that this won’t be seen as the pinnacle of his catalog. I firmly believe that Vince had the second-best decade of any rapper in the 2010s (only behind Kendrick Lamar) in terms of his quality and quantity of releases. Considering that Staples created two of the previous decades’ best albums with “Summertime ‘06” and “Big Fish Theory” and two of the best modern rap mixtapes in “Stolen Youth” and “Shyne Coldchain II,” I naturally came into this release with lofty expectations. The bar he needed to reach to ascend to the upper echelon of his discography was high, and though it was not quite reached, “Vince Staples” is still a quality album and certainly doesn’t hurt Staples’ legacy as an artist.
All in all, “Vince Staples” is a unique and beneficial addition to an already remarkable discography and a welcome return from one of modern rap’s most talented figures. I will always appreciate Vince’s desire to pull off something different in his releases, continually testing his comfort zone and expanding what he’s capable of as an artist.
Favorite Songs: “Sundown Town,” “Are You With That?,” “Law of Averages”
Album Score: 79/100
Check out this Spotify playlist and like it to follow along with some of my favorite songs of 2021 as the year progresses!