Vince Staples is a goosebumps-vivid storyteller, a scathing social critic, and a world-class smart-ass with a comeback in the chamber for anyone who dares to underestimate him. If you really want to get him going, though, try calling him an artist.
“It’s not art if you’re not in control of it,” says the 24-year-old MC, holding court from an expensive-looking couch on an upper floor of New York’s Soho House. “We don’t treat these people like artists – especially rappers, especially black people. The respect that Andy Warhol or Basquiat got will never be granted to a musician. Look at how the world treats Kanye West now! So I don’t like that ‘artist’ word. We’re entertainers. It’s tap dancing. It’s fucking soft shoe. That’s how they see all of us.”
However you characterize his work, the point is that he’s extremely good at it. On his first album, 2015’s Summertime ’06, he spun an unsentimental rags-to-riches tale starting with his youth in Long Beach, California, offering a fresh perspective on an age-old American story. On his second, last year’s Big Fish Theory, he took more musical risks than any major-label rapper this decade not named Kanye or Kendrick, working with avant-garde electronic producers Sophie and Flume, among others, to tap into the twin gospels of Detroit techno and Chicago house.
Yet Staples – who loves poking holes in showbiz illusions – is quick to point out that neither album was a commercial blockbuster. “It took three years for ‘Norf Norf‘ to go gold!” he says of his most successful single. And while many applauded Big Fish as a bold rejection of Top 40 trends, Staples maintains that’s partly because big-name rap producers – like, say, Mike Will or Metro Boomin – aren’t interested in collaborating with him. “I’m not approachable,” he says. “Trust me.”
He turns to his manager, Corey Smyth, better known to some as Dave Chappelle’s consigliere: “Corey, has any successful producer ever approached us, like, ‘Hey, I want to work with Vince?'”
Not really, Smyth confirms. “People think we do it on our own,” the manager says. “We seem like we’ve got it together. But we have bigger marks to hit. We would like other people to be involved, for sure.”
“I don’t think about that stuff,” Staples says. “I care about my standards, not theirs.”
From an outsider’s perspective, he seems to have pursued his creative goals with a single-minded intensity since he started rapping around age 15. But Staples says that the poverty surrounding him as a kid meant he could never afford anything like a dream of future success. “Never had one of those. I’m not saying that’s a good thing, I just never did. Everybody don’t grow up like that. Some people aren’t fortunate enough to be able to think about all that ‘I want to be a firefighter’ shit.”
When we meet, he’s in town for a pair of shows at the 5,500-capacity Theater at Madison Square Garden with Tyler, the Creator, whose fans he jokingly calls “hippies.” Lounging with a Comme Des Garçons shopping bag at his feet, he doesn’t sound particularly excited about the performance ahead of him. “No one wants to stand on stage and scream for an hour,” he says. “But that’s the only way you make money in music, so I’ve learned to love it.”
On Twitter a few days later, he’s more emphatic. “Don’t be silly, the Vince Staples live performance is on par with something you’d see in Centre Pompidou,” he writes, referring to the contemporary art museum in Paris. “Increase your understanding.”
An avid fan of modern art, he shouted out the late feminist sculptor Louise Bourgeois on last year’s “Rain Come Down.” The postmodern visual satirist Richard Prince is another favorite. Staples mentions Prince’s copyright-flouting Marlboro Man photographs and his playful reprint of The Catcher In the Rye under his own byline. “But his Twitter is my favorite thing he’s done,” he adds with a smirk. “He’s an asshole. My kind of guy.”
After wrapping up his current U.S. tour commitments this spring, Staples is planning to slow down. This summer, he’s playing a few European festivals but otherwise going quiet, in the first real break from his relentless record-tour-promote cycle of the last three years. “It’s not a sorrowful, ‘I quit’ thing,” he says. “I just want to take a nap. And get an electric car. I’m trying to diminish my carbon footprint, whatever the fuck that means.”