Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Vince Staples

  • Hell Can Wait [Def Jam, 2014] A-
  • Summertime '06 [Def Jam, 2015] B+
  • Prima Donna [Def Jam EP, 2016] A-
  • Big Fish Theory [Def Jam, 2017] A-
  • FM! [Def Jam, 2018] *
  • Vince Staples [Motown, 2021] ***
  • Ramona Park Broke My Heart [Motown, 2022] A-

Consumer Guide Reviews:

Hell Can Wait [Def Jam, 2014]
Thematically, there's not much new on this LA mixtape fixture's major-label debut. Nor is he much of an image-slinger. But he's so hard-hitting, so direct, so concise, and before too long so hooky too. Yeah, he does bleed Crip blue (or is that clue, it's so bonfusing). But the compact lucidity with which this EP details the ups and downs of the drug trade and warns women off his money feels less like advocacy, celebration, or autobiography than street reporting. And his best lines rise up when Ferguson moves him to something resembling political speech: "They expect respect and nonviolence/I refuse the right to be silent." A-

Summertime '06 [Def Jam, 2015]
Staples's argument is, first, that the thug life was forced on him, not merely because he grew up on the wrong side of Long Beach but because his parents were gangbangers, and second, that white America is invested in the thug life, via not just the systemic racism that keeps African-Americans down but the systemic sensationalism of white hip-hop fans scarfing up gangsta horrorshow. As a white hip-hop fan who's resisted every thug coup d'art since the Wu-Tang Clan (who were major, I was wrong, but I hate guns and I hate sexism and I'd rather be wrong than tag along), I believe the sensationalism is more ironic than causal except perhaps insofar as gangsta swagger impresses boys in the hood who might otherwise settle for the crap jobs staying in school is good for. But give Staples credit--he doesn't swagger. He's always hard, often impassive, occasionally callous, but never brutal or mean, and nothing in his rhymes, flow, or beats boasts or romanticizes. What good that'll do who knows. But he's not part of any problem I can see. As thug coups d'art go, this takes Rick Ross to court, renders Freddie Gibbs more unnecessary than he already is, and is hella cooler than Iceberg Slim. B+

Prima Donna [Def Jam EP, 2016]
The Crip whose life was saved by DatPiff mixtapes proves how real his gangsta is by stressing on how bad it makes him feel. Wrecking his clipped, high-pitched flow with obsessive moans that don't stop and don't stop, he feels guilty about abandoning the street and guilty about the lives laid waste there. Two of the EP's six songs end by repeating the dejected refrains "Sometimes I feel like givin' up" and "Is it real is it real" well past their saturation points, while three others hammer away at "Born ready, war ready," "Pimp hand strong," and "We all waste away" like they're "Fuck tha police" or "Easy as one-two-three." The overall effect is admirably grim, with one essential exception: his very old friend Kilo Kish recalling their pre-K years. In this context, McDonald's birthday parties are so cute they're surreal. A-

Big Fish Theory [Def Jam, 2017]
On an album that's two-thirds as amazing as is reported, nine-tenths of the amazement is musical. Not just the stripped-down electro powerbeats whose supple muscularity is less 2-step than is reported, but Staples's exacting articulation--he's on every beat smooth and toned, never e-nun-ci-a-ting but without a word lost. Which brings us to, you know, the rhymes. Sure he says what he wants to say with clarity and economy; sure he takes on police racism rampant. But what he wants to say is pretty much the usual except insofar as he doesn't murder anyone while preferring money to women. True, on the last two tracks he contemplates suicide in his first-class seat and muses about the mother of his very unborn children. But you know how it is--they always sneak some soft stuff in at the end. So maybe next time. And maybe not. A-

FM! [Def Jam, 2018]
It is my sad duty to report that he's a lot better at tragedy than comedy ("Feels Like Summer," "Fun!") *

Vince Staples [Motown, 2021]
The verging on jaunty reminiscences and excuses of an ex-banger who's found a better way to live ("Are You With That?" "Taking Trips") ***

Ramona Park Broke My Heart [Motown, 2022]
Staples is a storyteller who brags, describes, recalls, and confesses not so much in character as in an implied third person, as if the thug life is half autobiographical milieu and half mere subject matter. Rendered with a calm, articulated detail designed to convince the wannabes, bystanders, and curiosity-seeking outsiders who dominate the fanbase of any rapper who makes a good living at it, these tales of crime and punishment are longer on punishment than the run of the competition. In tone they recall the fictionalized Wu-Tang: An American Saga RZA Inc. sold to Hulu, including the parts where I can't remember who's who exactly and feel I'm learning something anyway. A-