On FM!, his 2018 collaboration with Kenny Beats, Vince Staples treaded familiar territory, presenting stories past and present of running around his favorite haunt, Long Beach’s Ramona Park, and the streets that orbit it, as California backyard party music that might get played on the radio. Kenny reprises his role as chief collaborator on Staples’ self-titled new album, and this time, his production creates a different kind of veil, as he pairs his cavernous 808s with sparse, heavily filtered samples, sometimes evoking Bon Iver (“Law of Averages”) or Passion Pit (“The Shining”). Against this quiet backdrop, Vince’s sense of mortal peril and brilliantly concise songwriting come into focus more than ever.
Staples’ paranoia, intensified by his success, is the force that animates Vince Staples. He presents it as something that steals joy and spoils occasions that should be carefree. “When I see my fans, I’m too paranoid to shake they hands/Clutching on the blam,” he raps on “Sundown Town.” On “Taking Trips,” he laments: “Can’t even hit the beach without my heat, it’s in my trunks.” On other albums, Vince might have framed these moments as comedy, but he delivers these lines in a forlorn, matter-of-fact tone. On the skit “Lakewood Mall,” his friend Pac Slimm, who is currently incarcerated, tells a story about a day when Vince’s decision to opt out of a party saved him from a potential legal quagmire. Staples submits the skit as evidence of why he keeps his head on a swivel. It’s also a detail of one of the many streets and locales he alludes to (in this case, the McDonald’s at Lakewood Mall), as well as the people who frequent them, as a part of his ongoing effort to map North Long Beach as he sees it.
Vince Staples is short (it runs 22 minutes across 10 tracks) because Vince Staples is a terse rapper. “Taking Trips” echoes a technique of his past songs “Hands Up” and “Blue Suede,” by condensing rich double meaning into the two-syllable phrase “trippin’.” He further complicates the phrase a few songs later on “Lil Fade,” rapping, “Trippin’ gets your whip sprayed.” Vince’s knack for combining brevity and sly wordplay, together with Kenny Beats’ restrained production, make the album particularly lucid from start to finish. The opening track “Are You With That?” presents Staples at the cemetery visiting the graves of the dead homies. He slips seamlessly between past and present: “Whenever I miss those days/ Visit my Crips that lay/ Under the ground, running around/ We was them kids that played.” Vince has lived his life in the shadow of death. With his self-titled album, this fact has never been more apparent.