Vince Staples is used to playing the bad guy. Since he was first introduced as a fringe Odd Future affiliate the 22-year-old rapper has established himself as a calm, sinister presence—in sharp contrast to the sometimes shocking, but mostly innocuous, hijinks of Tyler and company. His calling card has been the scene-stealing guest verse, the content of which ranges from villainous to downright vile (e.g. Earl Sweatshirt's "ePar"). In the four-and-a-half years since the release of his first mixtape, Shyne Coldchain Vol. 1, we've been able to delve further into Staples' mind and seen him develop as a lyricist and songwriter, as he's consistently added depth to what could've been a two-dimensional gangsta persona. Every anti-hero needs an origin story, and in light of the circumstances that formed Vince Staples, black-and-white categorizations of good and bad start to turn gray. That gray area is where Staples does his best work.
Staples' debut double album Summertime '06 is a study in artful juxtaposition—an hour-long examination of the contradictions that make the man. His hood nihilism is tempered by astute observations about society and an underlying longing for a better way of life. Sonically, the album plays with complementary opposites, too. His voice is high-pitched and slightly nasal and his vocal clarity is impeccable. To match those qualities, lead producer No I.D.—and an all-star team of boardsmen including DJ Dahi, Clams Casino and Christian Rich—supply Staples with a dark, atmospheric backdrop full of low end, reverberating percussion and distortion. But, because of Staples' myriad flows and the intoxicating rhythms of songs like "Loca" and "Get Paid," groove is never sacrificed for mood.
The album begins with "Ramona Park Legend, Pt. 1," where woozy, tropical wa-wa guitar, sporadic snares and bass kicks blend with the peaceful sounds of seagulls screeching and waves ebbing and flowing—only to be pierced by a single gunshot. Welcome to Long Beach, Calif., Staples' hometown. But Summertime '06 is no sunny "Summertime In The LBC." "We love our neighborhood, so all my brothers bang the hood / I never vote for presidents / the presidents that change the hood / is dead and green," rhymes Staples on the album's manifesto, "Lift Me Up." He's as motivated by money as anyone who's grown up without it, but he's also keenly aware of racism and inequality, making him a conflicted young man whose perception is clear as his morality is murky: "Fight between my conscience and the skin that's on my body, man / I need to fight the power but I need that new Ferrari, man." On "Get Paid" he runs down a laundry list of things he's done to do just that, from armed robbery to home invasion. But he punctuates his dirty deeds with a statement about the futility of the paper chase: "Money puttin' n***** in the Matrix, face it," and an echo by guest Desi Mo: "Money is the means of control!"
Staples' relationship with the opposite sex is as complicated as his relationship with money. He flirts on "Loca" but danger looms throughout the courtship. He warns the object of his affection that she needs to be prepared to deal with a gangbanger's lifestyle. The cracks in his gangsta veneer become apparent, though, on "Summertime" where we get Staples at his most vulnerable, singing to his lover, "This could be forever, baby" and "I hope you understand / they never taught me how to be a man / only how to be a shooter." Yes, Vince Staples can be that villain you root for, but he's even better at showing us the complex, varied pieces that make up a real man.