Vince Staples Q&A: The Most Exciting Man in Rap Drops Knowledge

Long Beach MC on his favorite David Bowie guise, the death of the rock star and fiberoptics

Long Beach MC Vince Staples is this summer's most exciting rapper. He's an XXL Freshman, an actor in Dope and the auteur behind the cinematic double album Summertime '06, one of the most critically acclaimed LPs of 2015. The album, recently released on Def Jam and executive-produced by Kanye mentor No I.D., documents a mad city from the perspective of a teenager who has just begun to see it clearly — sometimes too clearly for his own good. Its cover sets the scene, rendering the nearby Pacific Ocean to resemble cold, Joy Division radio waves.

Staples made his musical debut on Earl Sweatshirt's first album, then came into his own through four mixtapes and last year's Hell Can Wait EP. But according to the rapper, Summertime '06 is different from all of them: After five years, he has finally released something that he can listen to without cringing. Last week, Staples sat down with Rolling Stone to talk about David Bowie, Charleston and this conflicted, invigorating LP.

What images were you thinking of when you came up with the title Summertime '06?
It was kind of a turning point as far as how life and things go. I was basically just drawing inspiration from that, trying to get a certain mood, how I felt at the time period.

Did you approach the album with the Summertime '06 concept or did it come together after your wrote some songs?
I have ideas just laying around, and I just picked one, honestly. We just had to pick which songs fit more toward a certain vision, then we had to find the beats for it. But I pretty much had everything already written and stuff. It was like a puzzle in a sense. . . . I watched a David Bowie documentary, and there's never been two types of a David Bowie album. Every project has to stand on its own. It's a different identity within each project, and I feel like that's the way it should be.

Do you have a favorite David Bowie identity?
You'd be surprised, man. I like people to not know these things. Even with the cover and certain songs, people ask me, "Oh, you listen to Joy Division?" Like, why can't I? Because I'm black? And on the other hand, I had a show where somebody's manager was like, "Yeah, bro, I fuck with you. I'mma be honest I didn't really listen to your music at first because I thought it was on some white-boy shit." And my response was "What's white-boy shit?" He didn't know what to say. People are fucking crazy. I fuck with the Stardust though.

Someone made fiber-fucking-optics, but we don't know how to treat people yet.

When you were looking for beats, how did you link up with No I.D.?
When we were brought into Def Jam, the spiel on the situation was that No I.D. was looking for a younger rapper to work with and start from scratch — he was bored and looking for something new to do. He's helped us kind of get to the point where we understand that it's whatever we want it to be. You hear all these crazy-ass rumors about how you sign to a label, then they make you go to the club and put out these radio songs. That shit's not real. Like, it's a creative process where you pick your destiny. He's very much been an integral part of us figuring that out.

What kind of sound did you tell him you were looking for?
Honestly, I didn't really tell him. I showed him pictures. I'd say like, "You know how Downtown L.A. looks?" I was like, "Make it sound like 5th and Hill, but up at the top of the hill." Or I said, "Make this sound like that one part of American History X. It took a minute, but they figured it out. No I.D. takes pictures and stuff like that, so he kind of understood what I meant.

What's something about Long Beach that we wouldn't understand in other parts of the country?
It's back to what we just said: The dude's manager was like, "I thought you were on some white-boy shit." When you look at Snoop Dogg when he first came out, if you really think about it, he looked like he was in Suicidal Tendencies. Fucking big-ass flannels, shit wasn't baggy. That was a different time period, but we live on a fucking beach. It's like motherfuckers are waiting for me to put on a Dickie suit or something crazy or corny like that. It's very multi-cultural in a sense. You have a lot of Asian people, a lot of white people, a lot of black people, a lot of Mexican people. And it's not separated by that, it's separated by distribution of wealth. So you're exposed to a lot.

Sounds like what you're saying in the interlude on "Like It Is," about how the people who control things in the community look down on the community.
They don't give a fuck about you. They don't give a fuck about me. If you don't have enough money to change their life, they don't care who you are. We make everything black or white, we make everything about the things that don't matter: gay/straight, stupid shit that no one really cares about, no matter how much they tell you they do. They just want to feel important, and they want to demean other people 'cause it makes them feel better about themselves.

In your life and in your value system, what are the things that do matter?
That changes over time, of course. But the fact that we don't look at people like they're people is the craziest part to me. Like, when all that church shit happened it was so sad to me. 'Cause it was like, "See this what I'm talking about: Everybody hates black people." Well that limits people's ability to connect. That's what happens when you make things about gender or color or things like that. 'Cause you can look at a white person all day and say, "Black people just keep dying." They're going to feel sympathy for you, but they won't have a personal connection because they'll never know what it's like to be a black person. Same thing: We'll never know what it's like to be white. The fact that it's not just "a person died": Everybody knows how that feels to be a person. That just shows that we gauge humanity based on the wrong things.

What's important to me is people just being people. And that's what I care about: getting rid of all the bullshit that doesn't mean anything at the end of the day. You look outside, all this shit is fake. We make this shit. We can pick a system for taxes, we know how to work fucking phones, we know fiberoptics. Someone made fiber-fucking-optics, but we don't know how to treat people yet. Different wires made of different materials labeled different colors can make sound or picture come on a screen, and we don't know how to treat people. That's backwards as fuck.

Can you do anything about this as an artist?
It's not up to me to make the solution. I don't know it. I'm fucking 21 years old. I can pretend I care about that stuff, but in the reality I don't. My cares come from a very selfish place 'cause in reality I'm young and I haven't had the experience to be mature yet. That's why you have to be 40 to be a fucking president. You have to gain a level of maturity over time. I can't tell you the solution, but I can promise you it's there. My music is saying, "This is here." It's no solution, it's not "positive." It is what it is.

On "Jump Off the Roof" you say, "I pray to God 'cause I need him." Are you religious?
Hell no. I hate that shit. But I gotta tell myself something is there so I don't go crazy and start treating people all super bad. It's all about parameters, my dear friend. It's all about parameters. You gotta set boundaries for yourself. I was a very different person. I was acting the same, but I had a very different mindset when I was younger. Negativity is a motherfucker, man. I was on some bullshit.

That's what I care about: getting rid of all the bullshit that doesn't mean anything at the end of the day.

What's changed from summertime '06 to summertime '15?
I'm old. Shit's boring. I hate this shit. I miss being a little kid and thinking I was fucking invisible. It's funny, man. I used to have fun. I'mma make a movie that doesn't make me lose my sponsorships or some shit, about how wild we were when I was younger. I was talking to one of my friends about that the other day. You know how when you're young you've got a little group? Out of my specific friends, I'm the only one who's not in jail. We were talking, like, How did we get out of that shit? I don't even really know. We still gotta deal with some of that bullshit: People tweet me like, "Vince Staples, I like his music, but he did this, that and that so fuck him!" I just feel bad. Like, "Damn, man, I'm sorry."

Musically, what do you want to do from here? Have you thought about it?
Hell no. I take it one at a time. I just know I never want to do the same thing twice. I don't care about any of this shit. I don't care about album sales, I don't care about the radio. I just want to do cool shit, because that's what everybody was doing in time periods that matter. You gotta think about it: We're about to have probably a decade or 20 years of music that no one remembers anything from. Like, who's the rock star right now? We got Kanye West, that's it. That's fucking sad. There are no Mick Jaggers, no Steve Tylers, none of those fucking people. No Keith Richards. That shit doesn't exist anymore. No fucking Jimi Hendrix.

Taylor Swift is to some people.
She's not a rock star, she's a pop star. She's Britney Spears. That's different. I bought her album — I'll never listen to that shit. Fuck no. But she saved music in a sense when she did that letter about the Apple streaming shit. Closest thing we've got to it is Jack White. He doesn't really do any crazy shit.

He's just a little weird.
He's weird, dude. So it's like, "Oh, we'll take it." There's not shit. Young Thug is on his Little Richard shit. That's tight to me. I'm a very big fan of that.

What's some of the cool shit that you want to do?
See, I don't know. When you plan it it's not cool shit.

Do you think you'll change the world?
Hell no. I'm not changing shit. . . .I might. I don't know. I'll be all right. We'll figure it out.