Album Review: Vince Staples – Dark Times

[Def Jam; 2024]

2021’s self-titled album was a pivotal release for Vince Staples, marking a plunge into uncertainty, a disillusionment that followed the sublime crest and sweep of his earlier work, including 2015’s Summertime ’06 and 2017’s Big Fish Theory. Throughout the 2021 set, Staples rummaged for meaning, cobbling together memories, pursuing causes and effects, envisioning possible trajectories. The project’s overall tone, too, was weightier, an emotional and sonic veer from 2018’s FM!

With 2022’s Ramona Park Broke My Heart, Staples continued to plumb his life arc, collaging images from his formative years, much as the post-WWI modernists attempted to create a map for the future by reconfiguring the fragments of the past. The sequence is brighter than the self-titled release, however, Staples dipping in and out of self-mythology, balancing dejection with flashes of vigor, jadedness with flares of innocence.

His latest album, Dark Times, is aptly titled. With “Black&Blue”, Staples paints a picture of vapid decadence, unreliable friends, and being trapped within the hyped image that often accompanies hip-hop success (“Juggling thuggin’ and passion and pride”). The song exudes the kind of disenchantment that pervaded the self-titled release yet is more explicitly self-revealing. When Staples sings, “Money I’m getting it / heaven I’m living it / I look in the mirror and see something missing / I feel like it’s you”, the “you” he refers to is largely some exiled or abandoned aspect of himself. He’s not the person he used to be, and he doesn’t love what he sees.

In addition to setting the stage for Staples’ lyrical introspections, the track establishes the project’s sonic make-up: decisive yet murky beats, swirls of semi-orchestral accents, a shadowy atmosphere. Staples and his collaborators have mined these sounds before, though here they seem further honed, more integrated, streamlined. It’s as if we’re riding in a vintage limo with tinted windows, cruising through a strange bardo. Every billboard flashes an image from Staples’ life, things remembered, things forgotten. We find ourselves traversing not so much a Dantean underworld but rather a vista akin to a digital purgatory, a place where the virtual and mimetic converge. But no AI or Photoshop, thank you. Staples is interested in seeing things as they are, not the edited, redacted, beautified version of them. That’s not to say that he doesn’t have his particular lens, through which his particular interpretations (and biases) are forged.

“Government Cheese” works with similar sonics as “Black&Blue” but invokes a more lethargic gestalt as the beats drag slightly, creating a narcotized effect. Midway Staples refers to an incident where a friend of his in prison asked him how’s he doing and he felt obligated to downplay his success. He also ponders the death of his older brother. These narratives and the images that go along with them are accessed by Staples in an attempt to come to terms with his own life and life in the broader, more archetypal sense. He’s a cautious confessionalist as well as a keen observer a la James Baldwin (whose conversation with poet Nikki Giovanni is sampled in “Liars”).

“Shame on the Devil” occasionally brings to mind billy woods’ Aethiopes, particularly the fuzzy (and stunning) “Doldrums”. While woods, however, is deflective, historical in perspective, cerebral, Staples moves between diaristic reflections and dire prayerfulness, expressing gratitude while striving to accept that life inevitably involves suffering. If woods is oblique, Staples leans literal. If woods is Ellisonian in his reach, Staples has more in common with Langston Hughes. It’s not a simple thing: to acknowledge your blessings while embracing the fact that you’re burdened with anxiety, anguish, depressive leanings. How do you convey this to others? How do you risk their outrage, their failure to grasp that success doesn’t insulate one from psychological vicissitudes or “the slings and arrows” of misfortune?

With the hook-y and ’90s-bounce-indebted “Étouffée”, Staples continues his survey of sociological and existential dynamics. He’s essentially a Hobbesian (common in the hip-hop domain), which is to say, he recognizes: it’s not the grab for money or power, per se, but craving, in its most fundamental and instinctive form, that keeps the world turning, the economy propped up. He mentions “transactions”, “all I wanted was a couple mill’”, and “making tricks”, then concludes, “The ghetto will trap you, but I love it”. Yet he knows, as did others before him, that you can’t go home again. You’re not the same person, the people you knew don’t regard you the way they used to. You’re like the jester in one of Shakespeare’s tragedies. You grasp the awful truth – that life doesn’t fix life – but no one wants to hear it.

The album continues to unfurl, synthesizing autobiography, roman à clef, and exploded/reassembled narrative. “Justin” is about the spaces between people, how intimacy is always a matter of degrees, never complete. With “”Radio””, Staples nostalgically delves into his musical origins. The beats are intriguingly busy, the audial field streaked with warbly and metallic accents. “Nothing Matters” shows Staples dropping into some of his more nihilistic musings regarding capitalism and conditioning (“The band plays on like it’s supposed to”), romance (“Why would you tell me that you love me when you don’t?”), and platitudinous philosophy (“Who told the lie and said that life was short?”).

With “Freeman”, Staples launches into a relatively level-headed take on life and how to best make your way. When he says, “It feels good to be a free man with clenched hands,” he lands a strikingly paradoxical image, one that in many ways captures the contradictions he’s dedicated to exploring. “Heavy is the hand that reaches past the plates to pay the tab”, he later quips, adopting a quasi-misanthropic stance that recalls both Kendrick Lamar circa Mr. Morale and Dave Chappelle’s often caustic insights.

If Staples’ self-titled introduced us to the artist’s ability to interrogate a limbo, Dark Times is more detailed and specific in its mission and references; as a result, he seems less guarded, more vulnerable. The album’s sonics support Staples’ lyrical direction, conjuring ever-changing environments, ever-shifting interdependencies, and that identity is unstable, ever-evolving. Staples dances between despair and the commitment to continue searching – for inspiration, equanimity, for a sense of wholeness, as elusive as that may be.