The Life Aquatic Tour
1026 Spring Garden St.
Philadelphia, PA, 19123
Doors 7:30 PM / Show 8:30 PM
This event is all ages
Seven years ago, Vince Staples was invisible. He was a youth tied to the world by group identities that defined him, mostly, by what he was not. Whether it was his city, his neighborhood, his family's economic class, or his race, he could find himself only in contrast and negation. Just as being from Long Beach meant he belonged in no other city, living near Ramona Park on Long Beach's north side meant he belonged in no other neighborhood. Changing places in the world was impossible while his family was struggling, and the impossibility of moving was compounded by the exclusionary, racist housing policies typical of Los Angeles, Southern California, and the United States as a whole.
But now he's highly visible. His presence is so appealing that people will pay money to see him; his thoughts are so compelling that people will pay to hear him speak his mind. He has enough money to provide for his family. He has enough money to move out of Long Beach. He can travel the world. He's a rapper who has made a name for himself by offering, with great honesty and precision, a perspective on his former life. After the release of Summertime '06, an album whose calm power and retrospective clarity garnered unanimous critical praise, more doors have been opened for him than he can walk through. He's gone from being nearly completely trapped to possessing what appears to be total freedom.
Yet appearances can be deceiving. Staples' most recent collection, an EP titled Prima Donna, is devoted to the question of how it feels to suddenly be famous, the sensation of going from having nothing to having it all. It's an old and fundamental narrative in hip-hop, but rappers have always found a new way to breathe life into it. In the space of seven tracks and twenty-one minutes Staples brings forth a vision at once elegant and brutal, delighted and despondent, compact and sprawling, and above all else ambiguous to the point of disorientation. Though it begins with “Let It Shine,” the artist's desperate a cappella rendition of the gospel standard, and ends with “Big Time,” an ode to wealth achieved through gang violence, the EP is designed to be listened to in reverse order as well: since “Let It Shine” ends with a self-directed shot to the head, everything that follows can be viewed as the artist's life passing before his eyes. Images and postures are set forth to be taken at more than face value: the celebration of male dominance in the next-to-last track “Pimp Hand,” though unequivocal on its own, becomes, in the context of the larger narrative, an omen of self-destruction.
The EP transforms his sense of freedom into a terrifying sense of displacement, but that displacement becomes the occasion for a different mode of freedom—the freedom to interpret. This double-sided nature extends to the sound of the songs themselves, which alternate between interludes where Staples sings slowly, somberly, and in isolation and main tracks with inorganic, dissonant sound textures where the artist spins out elaborate, high-powered verses witnessing to the alienation of new wealth and status. Joining a dizzying array of digital skitters and blips with distorted and sub-verbal vocal samples and booming bass notes, the production's worrying, abstracted spirit mirrors the artist's confusion and unreality.
The extremity of this situation leads him to turn to religion. Though Staples has been vocal about his mistrust of religion in his past work, he finds himself “holding on to what the pastor say” and singing “Let It Shine” before his death. But faith also figures in another sense: “You're a star, they say, you mean so much to me,” Staples repeats during an interlude. It becomes clear that part of the incredible pressure being laid on him comes from fans with unnaturally high expectations. “People need to know what they do to their artists,” Staples says: by treating artists like gods they rob them of their humanity. As in Kanye West, the imagery of light in “Let It Shine” unites celebrity and religion—but with Staples the image distills a poisonous tendency common to both. It's hardly surprising when artists, spoiled rotten, turn toxic to themselves.
Given this, it becomes less surprising why a newly famous artist would release a collection centered on the process of going mad to the point of self-destruction. Most tracks highlight verses and images that are as inventive as they are fearful. Death lurks within and without: “I just wanna be da Vinci, baby, why they wanna kill me, baby? Feeling like a pop star, music drive a nigga crazy.” Art is an extension of humanity as well as its madness: “You have to be human to have problems,” says Staples, but “you have to be absolutely crazy to want to talk about them.” Yet art also offers relief from lunacy. The voice of reason and stability on Prima Donna is never stronger than on “War Ready,” which samples verses from Outkast's “ATLiens” where Andre 3000 describes how he found an outlet for his rage in art and not violence. It's clear that Staples has found, in conversations with the elder artist, some of the wisdom and experience he seeks. “I'm glad he's able to give me advice and help me to become a better person. Become more of what I can be.”
Still, as the structure of Prima Donna (and Staples' career trajectory as a whole) suggests, he can't move forward without falling back into his past. The central track “Loco” is haunted by voices representing old girlfriends; the last three tracks return him to his bygone gang life and lingo. Staples has always been a distinctive character. “My friends have always said 'Vince is the weird one,'” he says. “It's always been accepted, that's why I don't feel the need to change. My friends have always pushed me to be myself.” Despite his isolation and introspection, he never forgets the people who, even in an unforgiving environment, gave him the space to develop his character and talent; Prima Donna is, among other things, a request to his audience for the same tolerance and respect he once received from his friends in Ramona Park.
Perhaps it's also one more reminder to himself that no matter how far from Long Beach he gets, the gravity of the place will never leave him. Vince Staples is still stuck in his ways, but now that stubbornness gives him a chance to move the world. In a world of full of painful departures, his art gives listeners reason to believe that, somehow, as he advances, the people who have left him and the people who he's left behind will still be waiting for him at the end.
Kish Robinson, artist + designer, recording artist, student.