Album Review: Vince Staples – Ramona Park Broke My Heart

[Blacksmith/Motown; 2022]

Throughout the litany of nonchalantly grim lyrics Vince Staples has delivered over the past 10 years, one constant has remained: his symbiotic relationship with Ramona Park. Staples announced his purpose for rapping on 2013’s Stolen Youth, a collaboration with the late Mac Miller, rhyming, “I’m here to tell the world I’m from Ramona Park / diving in the deep water like I know the sharks / climbing in the king’s daughter I deserved the crown / they weren’t fucking with ya boy, but they heard me now.” He has made good on his promise through every LP since. 

On Ramona Park Broke My Heart, the fifth studio album by the West Coast rapper, Vince pens the latest chapter in his psychologically complex relationship with his hometown. 

Implementing club bangers from DJ Mustard (“Magic”) and DJ Dahi (“DJ Quik”), the album appears to lean harder into mainstream territory, unlike last year’s eponymous album. Ramona Park Broke My Heart takes a different approach that invites the onlooker into a world much sonically shinier than initially presented. Relatively easy to pick up and digest, Vince guides listeners through a multilayered inspection of his old stomping grounds and the inevitable trauma that came with it. The polylithic body of work presents the Cali-native as well-rounded but still suffering severely from lingering survivor’s guilt, which he juxtaposes with a ruthless mindset that will repeat past atrocities if it means his survival. 

Serving as the album’s introduction, “The Beach” paints a portrait of Vince Staples, his current mindset, and captures what Ramona Park Broke My Heart is all about. Detailing the beginning, middle, and tragic end of life in the streets, Vince raps, “Cold sweats and the shivers, I be having premonitions / Growing up ain’t have no lights unless it said to check the engine / ‘Less we had to spark the wick, show somebody that we miss ‘em / I will park a n***a shit Streets got dark and n***a quit, huh?” 

Needing to point out his upbringing, losing close homies to gang violence, and then participating in the aforementioned violence represents Vince’s intent to illustrate what life in Ramona Park truly was for him and people like him: a vicious cycle. Starting through his foreshadowing of events, introducing the narrative with “I be having premonitions”, he explains to the listener why impoverished people turn to a life in the streets. Staples then mentions mourning loved ones and immediately follows it with violent lyrics, invoking dark and unsettling imagery that shows that he has turned to the streets with nowhere to go and nothing to his name. If you then begin to read these lyrics from the point of Vince’s premonitions, it completes a loop-effect, a seemingly inescapable cycle. 

Through Vince’s eyes, we witness an environment plagued by repetition. Violence met with violence equates more violence, and Ramona Park’s deathly cycle never ends. Staples further drives this point home in “Aye (Free The Homies)” as the chorus celebrates his successes in life while the verses offer a more sinister world view. Seemingly escaping poverty, the MC crafts a song that offers slick production that would go up during any Summer kick-back. Chill and unassuming, “Aye (Free The Homies)” takes advantage of the listener’s expectations and offers a cloudier contrast to the beat and chorus’ sunny surface. Vince, teeming with desire for revenge, exacts his intentions, rapping, “In too deep, I ain’t with the peace / Wanna end the beef? / Tell them niggas bring my homies back”. However, as the chorus emulates a “we finally made it out” mindset, the grim behavior illustrated in his rhymes shows that Vince can never truly break free from the shackles of systemic violence. 

Vince’s fifth LP is packed with moments that reflect this internal and external struggle; a dichotomous story that lends all of its resources to create a wholly authentic glimpse into the rapper’s circuitous life. “Papercuts” finds the MC reminiscing on when he used to wish for a life of riches but deeply regretting the intense paranoia that followed, while “The Blues” finds the rapper struggling to make sense of the multiple cycles that he has intentionally and unintentionally found himself in. 

Ramona Park Broke My Heart is an illusion; Vince Staples’ latest LP finds him making far more ear-catching music than his previous effort, but the infectious beats and choruses are merely a facade. Rhymes injected with plight and calamity riddle the album as his survivor’s guilt is worn like a shameful badge for onlookers to see. His voice is consistently stroking it throughout the 16 tracks, ensuring it’s one of his most revealing bodies of work to date. A true and honest portrait of a complex human being.