That Vince Staples has amassed a following as big as he has is impressive. It’s not that the Long Beach rapper isn’t talented; it’s that he’s solely interested in playing by his own rules. No project has felt like it’s influenced by anyone else, and in the case of 2017’s Big Fish Theory, there’s been nothing else quite like it. He’s advertised Sprite, but Staples never feels anything like a sellout.
He’s also taken an extended break from solo releases, with his new self-titled album being his first project since 2018’s FM! You might remember that as an EP or a mini-album, due to its lean runtime. But it was categorized as his third studio album, and if it didn’t stun in the way Summertime ‘06 did, it still showed Staples as a confident artist always willing to try new things. A self-titled release as album number four seems like a perfect opportunity to get up close and personal with Staples, as Vince Staples’ cover art suggests. But another 22-minute runtime suggests it’s going to be a bit of a truncated meeting. This album won’t shake up your understanding of Vince Staples as a person or an artist. Depending on how you look at it, that can be a relief or a disappointment.
You might be surprised to hear the album open with singing. “Are You With That” isn’t a massive detour for Staples. His lyrics are still about looking out for threats and looking back in anger, but the bounce of his voice against sole album producer Kenny Beats’ woozy production stands out. He also pulls off a hook that’s melodic without betraying the tension, a feat he repeats later on “The Shining.”
Confessional and catchy can certainly mix well together, as shown by numerous moments on Tyler, the Creator’s latest album. Where Vince Staples falters is that its feet are never quite planted in either garden. Staples had suggested this release is one that casts a new light on him, but the lyrics only occasionally offer lasting insight. On “Sundown Town,” he talks about being too paranoid to shake hands with his fans. It’s the kind of stark statement that you wish he would delve further into instead of just finding different ways to talk about guns. Kenny Beats’ production helps to keep Vince Staples interesting. Like on collaborations with Rico Nasty and Denzel Curry, Kenny shows how good he is at adapting to a rapper’s needs. Pitch-shifted soul samples, booming 808s, and hair-rising synth melodies all have a place here, sometimes, in combination with each other. Occasionally, Staples can feel a bit lost in the production, like he did on Big Fish Theory.
Critiquing a rapper as accomplished as Staples means grading on a curve. Do you love or at least like Vince Staples? This album will keep the fondness going. Do you hate him? Well, this won’t change your mind, but what’s wrong with you? But as satisfying as it can be to see a skilled artist keep up what they do well, there’s even more pleasure to be found in them surprising themselves as well as their fans.
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