In person and on social media, Vince Staples stays cloaked in a prickly layer of humor and snark. Bleak humor informs his music, too, but it's not the dominant mood—instead, he's typically sincere and serious, even when the subject is a something that could get lighthearted, like a schoolboy love. In an era that doesn't require much hyperbole to think of as "the end times," Staples, 23, cuts a figure like Mad magazine's Alfred E. Neuman; it's easy to imagine him delivering that iconic line, "What, me worry?"
But the dichotomy between Vince's insouciant public persona and urgent, clear-eyed rapping makes him a figure that we ask the world of. We want him to have the answers—because he's obviously smarter than us, with a scarily nuanced perspective as both an artist and citizen. Details about his upcoming second studio album, Big Fish Theory, are scant, but no doubt the record will be inspected and scrutinized as a how-to manual for contemporary life. Simply put, we want Vince's takes, because we trust him to be honest in a way many people aren't.
Of course, Vince Staples only moves for Vince Staples. In his first Complex Cover interview, conducted by OG hip-hop journalist Touré, he offers his unconventional perspective on rap beef and the underbelly of fandom. He talks with real candor about his family what his community back in Long Beach, California, needs, and why he might not be the guy we think he is.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Touré: We’re in Gulfport, Mississippi.
Vince Staples: I have no idea where we are, but we’re definitely in Mississippi.
Can you feel the energy of the slaves who used to be here?
Of course. They’re everywhere. This is one of those places.
The new album is called Big Fish Theory. Why? What’s that mean?
It encompasses things: Being larger than life in a smaller world, so to say. How rappers are perceived and perceive themselves.
That they represent their community? That they are bigger than their community, but part of it at the same time?
No, it's just that, influence aside, [being a rapper is] a very unique perspective because a lot of people have these larger-than-life personalities and these overbearing senses of wealth and things like that, but they aren't necessarily the majority. We’re still large in our own right, even though we’re kind of in a smaller facilitative space. They’re still not even showing all the hip-hop awards on the Grammys, and things like that, but you still find these great personalities and these great success stories within the small pond that is our music.
I feel like there’s not a distance with you. It's not like there’s the guy on stage, and then there’s the real guy. I feel like there’s less difference or there’s no difference.
I mean, you’ll find a lot of people that kind of situate themselves in a manner of a character or a role throughout the history of music, you know? Kool Moe Dee wasn’t necessarily a cowboy. It’s something that’s been constant, even outside the genre. So, as of now, we have a couple people that are telling their specific personal story, and it’s kind of getting a little bit more in that lane as time goes on. I’m just glad to be amongst that company. The more you make music, the more you learn about yourself, and the things that mean something to you, and I feel like if that wasn't something that was sensed throughout the music then I would be missing something.
So, you’re learning about yourself as you’re making the stuff. What did you learn about yourself in making Big Fish Theory?
I don't think this album was a learning process itself as far as the creation of it. I just think it was a culmination of things I had been learning over the past few years, and coming to an understanding. Often times, music becomes a coping mechanism for people.
What are you coping with?
I think everybody’s coping with the same shit. It’s just life. You live a long life, and then you die.
I suspect that you’re coping with a lot of things that I, and most people, don't know anything about.
I wouldn't say that. I feel like it’s just life. A lot of time we don't look at people that we deem to be more important than us as human beings. We become just fixtures based off the things that we create, or the things that we give the world, and those things kind of limit our ability to be looked at in a humane fashion. Everybody has and deals with the same stuff. There isn’t that many aspects to life to the point that we aren't all dealing with the same things. It’s pretty basic.
How would you describe the Vince Staple sound?
I don't know. I don't think I listen to enough Vince Staple music to dissect it. I think we’re still going. We’re still making new things everyday, but I don't think I necessarily have one. It’s funny, 'cause music, the creation of music—to take something that you hear in your head, and try to make it an actual thing, it never ends up how you imagined it, which could be a good thing or a bad thing, but it's never exactly how it was. Yeah, so I think you’re just chasing that sound or that feeling or whatever it might be, and I think that’s what keeps it creative, that you’re constantly chasing something. So I couldn’t necessarily say what that is until I feel like we've caught it.
How long does it take you to write a song?
It’s never like a sit-down type of thing. I’ve never really sat down, and decided I’m gonna write.
It's when the spirit moves you.
Exactly. It’s just more along the lines of when I think about it, I think about it. I can't really explain how it happens, but I don't know. I just wake up one day, and I know what it’s gonna be.
Is it pen and paper, or you type it into your phone?
We really working on trying to be eco-friendly now. So, we usually use these telecommunication devices and things like that. We’re not killin' trees for the sake of rapping.
You talk about being eco-friendly. So, how far does that go in your life?
It stops there. That’s exactly where it stops.
Just trying to maintain paper, but then you eat the animals, drive whatever.
Eat the animals. Drive 91 gas.
What’s the temperature at your house?
It’s always on the heat. Maybe the lowest we’re going is like a 73, 74, 75. On a hot day, we keep it tropical. High-emissions vehicles. Very fast for no reason. Cars that define the speed limit. That’s what we’re doing. But as far as paper goes, that’s where we cut our corners.
You've talked about living day-to-day—that was your experience for a long time. But now you've got a five-year plan. You've got a 10-year plan that you’re working on. You've got a 15-year plan. How does life change from trying to get through the day-to-day to “Yo, I got a plan”?
I was just lucky enough to be put around people that knew what they were doing, and cared about my best interest. I’m at this point now where I don't have to do anything but make songs, and I prefer that.
Do you love hip-hop?
What does that mean?
What does what mean—love or hip-hop?
What does “do you love hip-hop?” mean?
I mean, listen to the music, love the music. I mean, you don't love the culture. I understand that.
That’s what I’m saying. It’s not that. This is why I can't fuck with that statement. 'Cause what people mean when they say that is, “Do you like the 10 people that I like a lot?” If [somebody] said, “Do you love hip-hop?” Yeah, I love hip-hop. I love Lil Boosie and Yo Gotti and Soulja Boy and yada yada yada yada. Niggas gonna be like, “That don’t count.”
Beef is corny. It’s like, 'I’m gonna say really hurtful things about you for the sake of hip-hop.'
Who won the Remy/Nicki beef?
Shit is corny.
The whole shit?
That shit is fucking corny.
Isn’t beef a part of hip-hop?
It’s fucking corny.
Did you think the Cube/N.W.A. beef was corny?
It was fucking corny.
Jay Z and Nas was corny?
Back to the beginning, KRS versus—
Corny. Well, probably not corny 'cause somebody actually got beat up in those.
Oh. So if somebody gets beat up then it’s not corny?
I’m not gonna go book studio time to talk about you.
This is a part of hip-hop that fans love—it's traditionally part of hip-hop.
So watch a Smack battle. They’re much better at it. King of the Dot. You have the UW League in New Jersey. So many battle leagues. Go watch some Charlie Clips. I don't wanna see people demean one another for no reason when they can have a phone conversation. Especially when they’re actually successful musicians. There is battle rap. I am a fan of that, but as far as the spitefulness of it? 'Cause battle rappers are actually like all friends for the most part, and they write it, have fun, and talk about it on Facebook later. It’s real fucking cute, but all that other shit they can get the fuck out of here. That shit is corny as fuck. It’s like, “I’m gonna say really hurtful things about you for the sake of hip-hop." Oh.
What do you want that you can't get right now?
[Vince addresses his manager, Corey Smythe] What do we want, Corey?
Don’t you know what you want?
I mean, I tell him first though. So, he probably knows something I wanted. Yeah, we gotta buy this house.
For you or for mom?
My mom’s straight. We gotta get a house.
You got her a house?
Yeah, she straight.
Did you get her a house before you got yourself a house?
Yeah. I live in an apartment.
You live in an apartment, but you got her a house?
Yeah. She straight. She cooling. She got stairs and shit.
When you grow up with not that much, and then come and buy mom a house, how does that feel?
It was cool. She was happy.
Come on. You can't be like, “Ehh.” That’s a big deal. You took care of your mom. Like, that’s like the ultimate goal of the son. Like, “I'ma take care of you,” and you had that Denzel in American Gangster moment, “Mom, I bought you a house.”
Nah. That’s different though. We don't got a drug-money house.
But you bought her a house.
Yeah, we got a cool house. She got stairs. You gotta invest in yourself. You gotta invest in your home. 'Cause if the kid walks in the house and is like, “Damn. This shit is fly. Our parents love me. No, I don't wanna smoke meth with y’all after school. Have you been to my house?” That’s just how I feel. If you give the kids an environment to where they’re like, “I would never drink vodka with you fucking bum-ass children, and then go in my house. I have a Casper mattress, and it’s beautiful in here.” 'Cause I’ll tell people all the time, if somebody can walk in your house and not feel like they have to take they shoes off, you not doing it big enough. If they don't feel like, “I might mess something up,” then they don't need to be there.
They should walk in your house and feel like, “I gotta take off my shoes.”
They just need to ask, “Are we doing shoes off?” You can be like, “No. You can keep the shoes on,” but they need to know.
What makes you wanna get out of bed and go do shit? I mean, I know when I’m tired I gotta get out of bed 'cause I gotta take care of my kids. When you’re tired and like, “I don't really wanna get out of bed,” what propels you?
What else would I be doing?
Sitting in the house playing video games.
You gotta get one. Get a PS4 Pro, and turn the lights off, and play Resident Evil or some shit like that. Nah. You not gonna have a good day. Trust me.
So, why do you it if it’s not a good day, if it’s stressing you out?
'Cause you gotta do it. You pay $60 for the shit. You gotta go through it.
Why did you pay $60 for it if it’s gonna stress you out?
'Cause I didn't know it was gonna be like that. I be at the GameStop just hanging out and I was like, "What's up, bro?" He gave me the little slap-and-dap. And I'm like, “What’s new?” He was like, “Get Resident Evil and get Final Fantasy.” I was like, “I’m not gonna play Final Fantasy.” Whatever. Got it. Played it for like 10 minutes. Turned it off. Turned on Resident Evil, and then the motherfucker chopped my hand off, but it’s highly addictive 'cause you gotta get out of that fuckin house.
[A loud train passes outside]
Tell me you didn't lose that with the train.
You guys gotta throw it in there with the train. Trust me. I’m really good at these kinda things. Have you guys seen my music videos?
Your videos are crazy.
I have good judgment. Trust me.
I mean that. They’re like little movies. “Senorita” was blowing me away. The way the camera sort of flows with you, and it’s not lots of cuts. It doesn’t look like a normal video.
I hate camera cuts. Camera cuts are so tacky. What I’ve gotten from this situation is kinda what keeps me going day to day, and we have obligations. I was taught growing up that you have to fulfill your obligations.
But who are you obligated to?
Nobody. I’m just obligated to keep my word. If I say I’m gonna be here at 8:30, I have to be there at 8:30 'cause I said I was gonna be there. I coulda said no.
You know, you’re really good at not judging. Prince was like that. He would be like, “The album is not good or bad. It is." And you keep saying things like that. There’s no positive or negative. There just is. Where does that come from?
I honestly couldn't tell you, but I’ve never really been the type to wanna judge things. Which is funny because that’s what people ask me to do countlessly. Not in this sense, but, like in a “Vince Staples Rates the Top 10 Things He Doesn’t Give a Fuck About on Our Website.” I just feel like life is perspective-based; your perspective can change everything. If you have the wrong perspective it can fuck you. If you have the right perspective it can put you in a very good place. We were on the plane going to London, and we saw the Amy Winehouse documentary.
That was powerful.
I’m not fucking with that. At all.
You’re not fucking with what?
Like, any of those people.
Anyone in that movie who did some crazy shit. I’m not fucking with none of em.
Well, the tragic thing is that she got fucked most by her dad, and then, she's about to get out of her addiction—maybe—and here comes her boyfriend breaking into rehab! Here's some more heroin. Don't you actually love her? No, not really.
Yeah. I watched that. I was like, this is fucked up. But it kinda happens all the time in music. The biggest disservice isn't the family, the biggest disservice usually is the fans.
you can tell your fans everything about you, and as soon as they feel like it, they'll use it to hurt your feelings.
The biggest disservice is the fans?
What do you mean?
You expect your family and everyone to start acting weird. Because they might see your car, and they've been inside your house. Your fans—you can tell your fans everything about you and who you are and where you come from and all your problems, and as soon as they feel like it, they'll use it to hurt your feelings.
Don't your fans love you?
Isn't that what it means to be a fan? That I like you?
Then what happened to Michael Jackson? And what happened to Amy Winehouse?
Well, Amy Winehouse got screwed by her family.
But what does her family have to do with, you know, the media calling her crackhead and her fans booing her and throwing shit on the stage?
Well, wait a minute. The fans booed her because they did not get what they expected. Right?
Yeah, but—so? So?
What do you mean "so"?
I mean, so, when you go to Target, and you like your grocery bags a specific way, and you tell the lady, hey, can you double bag that? And she forgets to. Or she doesn't seem like she's paying attention. You might look at her kinda crazy. But then you might look at their face like, "You know what? They're probably having a bad day." You run into people with jobs all the time that might not perform to the best of their abilities all the time, but usually, we take into consideration their current mind state, the things that they're currently going through. We do it all the time. We always look at people and say, "Aw, man, I wonder what's going on with him. They don't seem like they're having a good day."
But we don't do that for artists.
So, I don't fucking care about any of that. I don't care if Amy Winehouse came to her show drunk, and was a having a bad fucking day. If anyone else went to work drunk, we'd be like, damn, it's some shit going on with them.
I get into this around Lauryn Hill all the time. People are like, but, why is she late? Why is she this, why is she that? Lauryn has five kids, plus other things going on in her life. She's a real person. Right? Vince is a real person. But I think the fans think if they pay $20 for a ticket to see you perform, they should get at least an hour of music.
Understandable. I completely agree with that, 'cause I'm all about making commitments. But my whole thing is, have you ever heard their music? 'Cause if you're a fan, and you hear the music of these people that we always speak about, they clearly have a lot of problems. I've never understood why you would want to [compound] that with—I wouldn't say slander, but it gets to that point sometimes. When they clearly need the opposite, [and it] would probably help them.
The love and acceptance.
Do you think about being a parent one day?
Yeah, I guess. I don't think about it, but Corey has a baby.
So, it's just a communal baby. I hang out with her. She great.
What has that taught you about life and who you wanna be that now you have this baby in your life?
Somebody gonna have a baby, eventually. So it's always a baby running around. So I'm not really in that much of a rush, 'cause I could always go to the homie house to hang out with a toddler. I don't know. I mean, life is a beautiful thing. It kinda refocuses your purpose and your values and things like that, so, it's a good thing to see.
It definitely refocuses the purpose and the values. Do you think about how you would raise your shorties different than the way you were raised?
Nah. I think I was raised really well, honestly. I could never think about raising my kids how I was raised because I have more money than my parents had when they were raising me. I have more opportunity than my parents had when they were raising me, so it'll never be the same. But as far as the lessons I was taught and the way that my family decided to keep me from certain things—I have very good parents. I mean, all of them: from my grandparents to my mother and my father. Even the parts that my sisters and brothers played in raising me up. I feel like I had very good parents. If I was able to establish the kind of relationship that I have with parents with my children, teach them the lessons that I learned without them having to struggle, I think I'd do an amazing job, 'cause they did an amazing job with nothing. I would be lucky if I was able to raise them how my parents raised me.
And your grandfather, your grandmother?
Yeah. All of them, I count in my parent group. My mother and my father and their parents, while they were here.
Tell me about your grandfather. I know he meant a lot to you. Where is he in you? What did he tell you that sticks with you?
He didn't talk much. I honestly don't think he's ever told me anything that was, like, one of those sit-down-and-let's-talk-by-the-lake Andy Griffith bullshit type thing.
But sometimes people drop a little wisdom.
Nah, he wasn't that kind of person. He just lived his life. He did right by people. He was a good guy. I think that means more than anything you could say. He lived a respectable life despite all the things that he had to deal with.
What about your mom? Where is she in you? What did she teach you?
A lot. That's the homie. I saw her a couple of days ago. She taught me everything I know, basically.
What does she think about this star Vince that has emerged?
She probably think it's cute.
We don't really talk about it. She's happy, though. I could comfortably say that.
What does she want you to do with your life that you're like, I don't know about that, mom?
She doesn't want me to do anything.
She lets you do whatever?
My mom's never told me to do anything—never pressured me to do anything, never had any plans for me. She wants her kids to be happy and healthy. That's all she really cares about. Besides that, we can do whatever we want, which is probably not a good thing for the group of children that she has. But it's a great philosophy in the grand scheme of things. So, yeah. She's cool.
What about your dad? How'd he influence you?
He hasn't learned from his mistakes. He tried hard, though. [It] just didn't really pan out well for him. But he tried hard.
But he's in a difficult situation. [Vince's father is a former gang member who's done jail time.] I mean, the deck is stacked against him already, right?
Mm, yeah. But deck's stacked against everybody for the most part where we come from. He figured it out, though. He just gotta stay out of trouble for a little bit, but he made it, so that's good. That's good for him. I'm happy for him.
So what do you learn watching him make that journey?
It's probably why I don't do drugs and all that bullshit, but I'd have to really think about that. I mean, you learn something from everyone, so I don't ever take that away from any of the people that, you know, were in my life. I could've learned something from the neighbor across the street or learn something from someone I met once or twice or had one conversation with. There's always something to learn within the people that you surround yourself with.
What does your community need? And I know you're trying to help, giving back to the kids, donating to the Long Beach YMCA. What does your community need that you can help them with?
They need a community. We don't have a fucking community. We got apartment buildings and a couple high schools, and we got a jail. That's what everybody has. Everybody has a police station, and everybody has a county building. Everyone needs a sense of community or sense of belonging or sense of identity. There's a bunch of people walking around with no identity.
You're talking about an African concept — we are together, we are a neighborhood.
It's not even just black people. It's like, Mexican people have the same problems we have, and where I live, the white people have the same problems we have. We have a large Southeast Asian community and they have the same problems we have.
Bu, you've talked about your family having multiple generations in gangs.
But that doesn't mean anything where I come from.
Because everybody in the neighborhood—
It's about the surrounding areas and neighborhoods.It's not that deep. You don't have to be a criminal to live in a certain—like, if you live in California, you're deemed a Californian. It's that simple.
Right. You live in this area, it's not something you sign up for. You leave the house, you're in it.
No. It's not Boyz N the Hood. That movie is so inaccurate, it's crazy. It's a horribly inaccurate movie.
Is there any movie that came close?
Nope. Menace II Society, kinda. Only 'cause everybody died.
But since gangs are so endemic to the community, what do they provide to the community?
Mmm—nothing. They're just people.
No. Nah, none of that shit is true. They're just people. They live over here. This is what this area of the city's called. That's what it's called. That's 99% of what it is. It was some shit a long time ago, but it's not anymore. Just means you live over here. It's not that deep.
I hate the cops. We know you kids. You kids got C's, and then you wanna beat people up.
You're saying that it's not what it used to be.
Gangs or no gangs, motherfuckers are gonna fight. That's it. Tribal instincts of human beings. These people and these people are gonna have disagreements. They're not gonna get along, and it's human. It's in our nature for conflict to happen. That has nothing to do with gangs or whatever. There are places without gangs that have high crime rates and all this other type of shit, so it doesn't really mean much. It's an identifier for the most part. 'Cause if you come from a certain place, you're gonna be a gang member to talk a certain way and do certain things. It's all based on this location.
Right. Several years ago, people were talking about it's less intense now. There was a time when it was wild and it's less difficult now. Is that accurate or not really?
No. It's just easier to go to jail.
It's camera phones. There was a point in time you could shoot a motherfucker, [and] somebody that saw you would have to run to the pay phone, go to the pay phone, call 911, 911 had to call dispatch, dispatch come tell the car to come. There was no street cameras. No cell phones. No nothing. Of course it looked crazier at that point in time. It was more going on because it was less likely to get caught. The fact people are still dying and it's a 90 percent chance you're going to get caught just shows that no one cares. [Police back then] were probably much smarter than we were as far as how they maneuvered and did things like that. And they think they so fucking smart, too. Fuck. I hate the cops. They think they so fucking smart. It's like, shut up. We know you kids. You kids got Cs, and then you wanna beat people up. No. I fucking hate cops. You know who I like? I like detectives.
When the detectives show up, it's some other shit. The detectives pull up and they look at you like, we know exactly what happened, but we can't prove it, so we gonna see you later. And I respect that stance. That's a good stance to have.
As opposed to?
As opposed to we gonna beat you up and make you walk home.
And that's how the cops are.
Yeah, that's the difference. Our detectives— our detectives be on some shit. They pull up in T-shirts, little badge hanging like NYPD Blue. It's real cute. They got they whole little routine. It's cute. I respect the detectives.
But the whole sense you paint is a community that's being occupied.
Yeah, I guess. It just depends, man. It really depends. It's very specific.
When was the last time you got beat up by the police?
I never got beat up by the police.
You got hit?
Hell no. I turn it on. "Yes, sir. No, sir. How you feelin' today?" I don't do all that with the police. My mom would whoop my ass if the police beat me up. She'd be like, "What did you do?"
You're talking about they know who are the disposable people — and the notion of there being disposable people is insane to me, because six years ago you would've been considered one of the disposable people, and we see the level of talent and what you can bring to the world. And how many people could have provided something to the world but they were treated as disposable?
And that's the reality of the situation.
But isn't that fucked up? Doesn't that piss you off? That's your people getting treated like shit. What do you want to see us do to combat that?
I don't know. I'm not that person.
Photography: Timothy Saccenti / Set Design: Andrea Heulse and Jed Pendergrass / Grooming: Jenny Sauceda / Styling: Whitney Kyles and Geranika Richardson
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