Vince Staples on His New Album, Making a Netflix Series, and Where Hip-Hop Goes Next

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Credit: Shaniqwa Jarvis*
Credit: Shaniqwa Jarvis*

Vince Staples says he wasn’t looking to drum up hype for his upcoming album, Dark Times. Over Zoom, he tells Rolling Stone that it was a bit of the opposite. He announced the project, out tomorrow, just a week before its release, and hasn’t opted for any of the typical prerelease attention-grabbing that listeners have become accustomed to in the streaming era. “There’s no reason to do things that traditionally were set up for people to go and have to purchase things at a specific time and date, location,” he says over Zoom. “I’m not that kind of artist pushing toward benchmark sales. So, if the music is available to give to the people, and you know you’re showing them on their phone where the music is, you might as well just give people the opportunity to digest it quickly.”

As the title suggests, Dark Times is another dose of raps about Staples taking stock of his Long Beach, California, upbringing. He says the project was an opportunity for him to reflect on where he’s been as he moves forward in life. “I’m 31 by the end of this year, and that’s a big difference from being 17 years old, releasing music for the first time,” he says. “So, if I’m speaking about my life, I want to make sure that I’m retracing my steps and knowing where I came from in a certain regard.”

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He depicts himself on a wayward road on the track “Black & Blue” with lines like “Buckle the seatbelt, so many want me to crash and die/Who can I call when I need help?/Juggling thuggin’, depression, and pride.” The bulk of the album shows Staples contending with the tumult of his environment, including how his trauma has led to dysfunctional relationships. On album standout “Justin,” he writes a story that steadily builds tension to an anticlimactic ending that brilliantly encapsulates the seemingly omnipotent risk of toiling in the streets.

On top of Dark Times, he’s also celebrating the success of The Vince Staples Show, a comedic adaptation of his life that he says he was surprised to see so many people enjoy. “I think I have a niche fan base,” he says. “I’ve never had an extreme level of success. So, I’m always open to people not liking something or it not [being digested] right. I was honestly surprised by the way that it was received.” It’s up in the air whether the show will be renewed for Season Two, but the response to Season One bodes well for a sequel. Staples spoke to Rolling Stone about Dark Times, his TV endeavors, and the entertainment industry.

You’ve said that this project represents you “mastering some things I’ve tried before that I wasn’t great at in the beginning.” What are some of those things?
Not just the project, but music in general. It’s you trying to home in on certain parts of the craft. I think as time goes on, Ramona [Park Broke My Heart] was a reflection of that as well, and so is Vince Staples. It’s just a greater reflection because it’s the most recent. But I think as time goes on, [I] put things out into the world, find a response to it, find out how to get better, [and] find out how to better convey those things. Those things would be songwriting, song structure, and not necessarily the right or wrong way to do it, just the way that I want to do it. Also, just how you’re honing your skill as a writer or creative person in general. Some of that should be attributed to the show. Some of it can be attributed to stints on other television shows and other sessions with other people. But it’s always for me, at least, a linear journey that you can always look back and say, “OK, I could see now that I didn’t understand this thoroughly at that past point in time.”

How do you feel like you’ve refined your craft as a songwriter? Is it as simple as repetition?
Yeah, just repetition. Repetition and getting older, different perspectives, learning how to speak better, learning how to speak to a broader type of [people]. Getting out of certain environments, getting into certain environments, it teaches you how to communicate better.

Was “Justin” inspired by Mobb Deep’s “Trife Life”? Because it kind of gave me that vibe.
Not at all, to be honest. I’m pretty sure I’ve heard that song. I’m not the biggest connoisseur, especially of things that came out before my time. You’d have to remind me the song because I’m pretty sure I’ve heard it. I think you’re inspired by everything that you’ve heard, everything that you’ve experienced, and when you hear music from the past, right? Especially at a young age. Because you’re saying Mobb Deep, I’m pretty sure I was a child or I wasn’t even born yet. I think finding familiarity is extremely important, and those kinds of things stick to you. We had the same kind of situation with “When Sparks Fly.” I had never heard of [Nas’] “I Gave You Power” song until people started referencing the songs to me, but I really, really appreciate it. Even people sharing my song in the same vein as that song and seeing that the way that [the things] we experienced in this country isn’t separated by city, state, coast. We all have similar experiences, just a similar outlook.

I also wanted to ask you about some bars and the second verse of “Freeman,” when you rap: “Only heaven knows the way I’ll blow in the breeze / I’d be a fool to think it’s left up to me.” What made you come to that realization?
I mean, that’s just life. I think the way that I grew up, a lot of things are unpredictable. So, you learn to just accept that that’s how life is. It’s just something, one of the few things, I think is important to carry with me over time from that lifestyle that we’ve transitioned out of is appreciating the day for what it is and knowing that it’s not always present. One day you just wake up and your lights will be off. That’s how we thought when we were kids to operate into the present. So, now that I’m older and I have this opportunity and all these things in front of me, I think it’s important to realize that you’re blessed with certain things that can also be taken away and appreciate that. I appreciate the listeners, I appreciate the people who support the music that we make, though we’re not the biggest artist or anything from that regard.

On the outro, is that a real phone call or voicemail?
That was a conversation that I had with Santigold. Just something that she said that I think resonated a little bit with the project. She told me about a dream that she had had, and I just felt like it resonated with some of the motifs of the album.

Did she share that after hearing the album?
Shortly after hearing the album. We had this conversation and she shared that, and it was really timely, so I decided to use it.

When I interviewed Earl and Alchemist they talked about being with you in the studio and how meticulous you were. Earl referenced you wanting to rerecord a verse even though he thought it was “the craziest shit [he’s] ever heard.” How often do you hear things that other people might not hear and want to improve on in a verse?
I don’t really ever look at it from that vantage point. I don’t make music for reasons that some other people do. Not that it’s anything wrong with anyone’s perspective, we all have our own unique approach. But, I look at music [from the] standpoint of this is my life and these are the things that I have to say, because when I’m gone, these are the things that are going to be left with the world. So, no matter what someone else might like or how successful they might be, I don’t think that’s as important as making sure that it’s an honest reflection of how I currently feel in the moment. So, I want to make sure that everything that I make, especially as I get older, is an honest reflection of where I currently am in the moment.

In the studio, how does that apply to your approach with delivery and inflection beyond just the actual lyrics? 
It ties into all of that. If you say something with the wrong emotion, it could be conveyed wrongly. We all know how we feel. If you’re upset and you’re angry and you say it in a joking manner, then the message can be lost. I know that’s an extreme, but I think what they’re referencing is “Mancala.” I changed the second half of the verse because I don’t really … Depends on what I’m doing or who I’m doing it with. But sometimes I don’t really get into much detail on some of the things. So, I’ll have a place holder, and they prefer the place holder to what it ended up being. But, from a substance and messaging standpoint and a narrative standpoint, it just made more sense to change it. But, he was overexaggerating. They’re great to work with and they’re very supportive of whatever [it] ends up being at the end of the day. They’re trying to make sure that I’m looking at it from a standpoint of “both things are acceptable.” But sometimes you just have to get into more detail with the story.

Can you speak to Cardo’s presence on the album and why he’s a special producer to you?
I would say quite a lot of music. He’s [sent] me quite a lot of music, just from a conversational, inspirational standpoint. We make a lot of things, but Cardo’s a friend of mine. I don’t have many music people that I would consider to be my friends. Not in a bad way — I just don’t.

So, I think that’s what makes him a great producer for me and the thing that I want to create. It’s that the awareness of each other’s circumstances, each other’s kind of day-to-day lives. It’s easier to make things with people that you have some understanding of. I appreciate his friendship and I have a lot of people that support my music. But, to have someone who supports your music, who has reached a level of success as he has to forge a bond with you and teach you things is extremely important. So, people like him, Alchemist, Tyler, I have good people around me who give me an understanding from their point of view.

When you spoke to my colleague recently you said that you don’t worry about people’s reactions to your releases, and you ”just take the notes as far as what you can do better next time in order to help people understand where you’re coming from.” What do you feel the notes were from your last album, Ramona Park Broke My Heart?
I don’t know. I think that was one album that people generally liked. I haven’t really seen many complaints about it, so I was appreciative of that aspect of it. I think some people were commenting on the content, the pacing, and tonality, and contrasted them to things that I put out when I was younger. I think that’s a good thing, from my vantage point. It shows you growth from a human standpoint. So, of course, you’re going to see people that say, “Oh, I wish you did this” or “I wish you did this just because I miss it,” not necessarily because it’s a good or bad thing. It just makes you aware of the growth that you had over the past decade.

So this project is your last release on your current Def Jam contract. What are your plans going forward label-wise?
I haven’t really got to that part of the bridge yet. Music is music, and we’re in a new time as far as how these things are approached. I’m not rushing to go into any new contracts or anything like that. But, I was given an opportunity as a teenager by Def Jam and Universal, so I’m very appreciative of that. But as far as now, I’m not sure how that’ll end up happening.

How you would advise younger artists to navigate their career from that early stage in terms of going indie versus signing that major deal?
Everybody wants different things, and I think musicians are very specific. There’s not as much functionality or ability to do music as other forms of art. Imagine if they just eliminated canvas, and they eliminated paint, and they eliminated paintbrushes. That’s what’s happening to music. So, whatever an artist does that is best for them, I think is ideal. We’re all trying to survive in a world to where you need money. So, I understand anyone’s approach from a financial standpoint. I think your art is your art no matter where it is. So, that speaks to what you’re saying as far as independence. But I do understand the financial ramifications of the ability to sell music. You can sell a painting at the Orange County Fair for 200 bucks. No one’s song costs $200.

I do understand the need that artists feel to have some sort of financial backing just because the value of music in regards to other forms of art are a little bit lower. Well, a lot lower. But with that being said, your art is your art and it all depends on how someone creates. I create things because they give me an opportunity to take care of myself and my family, and they give me a new perspective. So, that’s my personal reasoning. And whoever’s reasoning aligns with whatever situation is the one that they should pursue. But, yeah, music is changing, the world is changing, and I think we shouldn’t ignore it.

Where do you see hip-hop in five years if these kinds of trends continue?
I don’t know. That’s not something I think anybody knows. I think hip-hop is hip-hop and it’s always going to be. Hip-hop’s lasted for 50 years. That’s a long time for any genre of music to be at its height. So, if hip-hop ends up like the blues or ends up like folk music or these other things, that’s not necessarily a bad thing to me because we’ve had an amazing run. I think genres are genres. Black music is Black music. In general, music will always be reinvented and there’ll be new genres. There will be new perspectives. There will be new forms of music that evolve. If hip-hop dies, the Black voice doesn’t die. There are so many things that aren’t jazz, so many things that aren’t where they used to be, but our voice prevails and creates something new, and I think that’s just the weight of the world and how nature runs its course. So, wherever hip-hop ends up, I know we’ll be fine and we’ll be able to take the next step.

I’ve heard you previously speak on how certain hip-hop fans are voyeurs who perceive traumatic stories as entertainment. How does that make you feel about your purpose as an artist? 
I think my experiences are very specific to me and the truth is the truth. I don’t say anything in my music that I wouldn’t stand by. So, I think I’m open to having that conversation with anyone who could listen to my music, if they understand it or misunderstand it. I think I’m at an age where I’ll be able to give that clarity with things like this or in passing with fans. So, I think opening up that dialogue is important, and the things that I say, I just try to make sure that these are things that I can stand behind.

That’s something I didn’t understand as much when I was younger. So, the voyeurism doesn’t bother me as much from the standpoint of how I create my music. Because now that I’m older, I look at it from a standpoint [of]: If people are listening, what do you want them to know? What do you want to tell them? When I was younger, I remember doing festivals and shows and going to Europe and all these places. Then you have these huge crowds [at] the Laneway Fest, doing Glastonbury, opening up for the Gorillaz. There were a lot of large shows where it’s like, “Man, all I have to tell these people is ‘Northside, Long Beach.’ OK, what am I telling them about this area, this community? Am I highlighting the bright side? Am I highlighting the plight? Am I highlighting some of the issues that I see?” I don’t think I did the best job of that when I was younger. So, now that I’m older, I try to just make sure that while we have people who may not be aware of what is going on in our communities and they’re looking at it from a voyeur perspective, what can you showcase to these people to help them understand?

That’s what art is, right? Art is translation. You’re translating your emotions, your environment, your point of view, your perspective to outside people. I think because that is a fact, the things that you say are important, and what you want to get across is important, and as an artist, you can get across whatever you want. But for me, I just try to utilize that in a very specific way.

People have asked you your thoughts on the Kendrick Lamar and Drake beef. Now, with the success of “Not Like Us,” how does it feel to see people Crip walking on TikTok to a song downing somebody for cultural voyeurism?
The easy way around that is just to not have TikTok [laughs]. I don’t see none of that shit, man. All love. I’m 30 years old, bro. I’ve seen people die over nothing over and over and over and over again. I’m just more focused on real life. Trying to make sure that things are being done properly to benefit the community. That [viral] clip was at an hour-and-a-half youth day for the youth of Long Beach, from 16 to 26, people that are in programs in their schools. Right before that, a Black young man in college at Long Beach City College asked the mayor how he can get more funding for his programs. His program is specifically geared towards incarcerated individuals getting the chance to go to college. The question before that was him asking me how do we help people fully transition out of the street life and recognize opportunities, and that’s the clip that they ran with. So, that’s what the world wants to talk about, and I just don’t want to engage in those kinds of conversations. It’s just not for me. To each his own, but I’m not … I’ve seen too much of the real version of it to be into that. I hope we all learn how to love and respect each other and create what we want to create. Music is art and art is music and all the good shit. But me personally, I just don’t. I’m not into that.

How are you feeling about the feedback to The Vince Staples Show?
I’m grateful. I got to do something that isn’t really done on that network, or just done in general, with trying to break format and conventional comedy. I’m just trying some new things. So, I’m very happy that people embraced it, and we’ll see how they feel about it moving forward. We’re still trying to see what’s going to happen with that. But, looking forward to other opportunities in the medium.

Did you have any expectations of how people would perceive an unconventional route of storytelling?
I don’t really make things that people [enjoy] like that, just to be honest. I think I have a niche fan base. I’ve never had an extreme level of success. So, I’m always open to people not liking something or it not [being digested] right. I was honestly surprised by the way that it was received. But, yeah, man, I just feel like this show went very well, and especially for first-time writing, first-time producing, first-time starring in all of these things, I’m grateful for that.

I saw that in 2017 you told FX that you wanted to do a season of American Horror Story based on a blackout in the projects. Is that an idea that you still want to see to fruition?
I don’t even remember saying that. I’ll say some bullshit. But, yeah, I mean, like I said, any opportunity, man, I really do like the format of that show and the streamlined approach that he takes to creating his show. So, that would be an interesting thing to do, for sure. I think, what Ryan Murphy did, The Watcher, those kinds of singular thriller, noir storylines are all interesting to me. I would definitely be up for doing something like that.

I want to jump back to something you said earlier about the linear progression of your craft. How do you feel this project thematically differentiates from some of your previous work and represents that growth?
I think it’s all the same to me. I think a lot of the time I create things that have a similar feel to it, simply because I’m trying to figure out my own life and I only see so much. I think by me creating music [that’s] close to my life, we have similar themes that we’re trying to approach. But I think time, time is everything. Being able to live long enough and see enough to have a new perspective is extremely important. I think I’m at that point now — I’m 31 by the end of this year, and that’s a big difference from being 17 years old, releasing music for the first time. So, if I’m speaking about my life, I want to make sure that I’m retracing my steps and knowing where I came from in a certain regard. That’s a big part of it for me.

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