Vince Staples on Rap Activism: ‘It’s Bigger Than Whoever the President Is’
“As far as musicians, unless you’re talking some U2 shit, I don’t know who more confidently tries to do something or say something to change the communities more than rappers,” Vince Staples tells Rolling Stone. “Whether it’s Brand Nubian, whether it’s Talib Kweli or Mos Def, whether it’s Pharcyde or it’s Tupac, whether it’s Dr. Dre who released ‘Express Yourself’ telling kids not to do drugs, because it will give them brain damage. We’re not new to this.”
The Long Beach rapper is speaking in reference to a question about his newest single “BagBak.” It’s a pointed track, as abrasive and unrelenting in sound as in theme. “Prison system broken, racial war commotion/Until the president get ashy, Vincent won’t be votin’,” he declares. In the closing moments, he invites the president to “suck my dick.”
But before you jump to conclusions about which Commander-in-Chief he’s referring to, you should know that he recorded that line in September, well before Donald Trump was elected. His vitriol was directed to “whoever might have been the president at that current time.” Asked about his thoughts regarding the man who currently occupies the office, he says he doesn’t have many. “He is who he says he is,” Staples says.
During the past three years, Staples has cemented his place as one of hip-hop’s true rising stars. Many became aware of him through the myriad of witty interviews he’s given, like on Bill Simmons’ now-cancelled program Any Given Wednesday, or the GQ video series where he’s asked to review “every f–cking thing.” More importantly, Staples has earned wise praise through his gritty musical output on EPs like last year’s Prima Donna (a blend of “black humor and black rage,” according to RS), and his most recent full-length album, 2015’s Summertime ’06.
“As far as the career stuff, I’ve never really noticed it,” Staples protests. “I’ve spent so much time working on different things that I haven’t had the time to sit back and notice where everything is. I think that’s good to a certain extent, because it might creep me out if I did. I’m fine with where I am.”
On record, Staples portrays elements of his life and worldview in a stark, unflinching manner that has resonated with his growing audience. “I never go into a record with a specific thing I want to highlight,” he says. “It’s kind of always a shot in the dark at the beginning. I think all that stuff comes to you through your subconscious. The things that you go through, the things that you see in life, the things that kind of shape your current perspective. They tend to always sneak in there. I think whatever’s on my mind will end up being in there. If your songs have a place in your heart, I feel like the best will come of it.”
He’s not the kind of rapper that obsesses over image, and disdains contemporaries who try to be something they’re not. “I mean, it’s easy to pretend with something like that, and I’ll say this … when you’ve kinda dabbled in that world for real, and you’ve, like, been two feet in it, it leaves you with certain scars,” he says. “It always bothers me when I hear people say that, ‘Oh, I’m still in the hood. I’m this, I’m that.’ It’s like, ‘For what?’ If you’ve ever done that stuff, you’d understand how negative it is. I feel like people need to go travel, see the world and learn things and bring back the things they’ve learned.”
But back to the issues raised in “BagBak.” Staples doesn’t reduce the obstacles facing America to one person alone. “It’s much bigger than whoever the current president is, because even when Obama was the president we had songs about social issues, when George Bush was the president, there were songs about social issues,” he says. “There hasn’t been a point in hip-hop where there haven’t been songs about social issues. I have songs like ‘Hands Up’ that I recorded two years before Mike Brown died. I have songs that say the same thing I said in this song on my last album, and my last EP and the EP before that. I’ve been doing a lot for a very long time.”
“BagBak” is only beginning of what could be a big year for Staples. According to him, his next project is “basically done,” though he still doesn’t know yet whether it will be a full-length album or another EP. “I haven’t sat down and figured out the answer to that question yet, but I feel like soon I’ll be able to answer that for you guys. Once we have everything in line, that’s when we’ll have something to say.”
At the moment, his mind is centered on his upcoming Life Aquatic Tour – “I like Bill Murray” he explains of the tour’s moniker – set to kick off Saturday at Expo Park in Los Angeles. “We’re doing a lot of stuff we haven’t done before and it’s something that I’m really, really proud of,” he says. “I take a lot of pride in my shows because I know how bad they were at one point in time. We’re really doing a lot of production. We’re doing bigger venues. I want it to get to the point that someone who’s never been to my show, never even heard a song of mine, they can enjoy what they’re seeing and what’s being done on the stage.”
Those who do make it out to one of the dates will discover an artist totally uncompromising in his vision and unafraid to call things as he sees them. “It’s evident throughout the history of hip-hop culture that that has been a focus of the genre as a whole,” Staples explains. “I don’t think that that’s something that constantly needs to be restated when we have songs like ‘Fight the Power’ and albums like To Pimp a Butterfly or projects like the ones Ice Cube has created or like YG is creating with ‘Fuck Donald Trump.’
“Last time I checked,” he continues, “hip-hop has always been a driving force behind those ideologies.”