[Blacksmith Recordings / Motown Records / EMI Records; 2021]

Vince Staples has always seen fit to do the most with the least. Even given that his relative absence was edging towards three years – an eon at the speed of hip hop – it should be no surprise that his latest is a decidedly brief affair. Forget that his albums had been steadily getting shorter with each and every release, consider the fact that his double album Summertime ‘06 was shorter than many rappers’ single discs.

Thankfully, his efforts haven’t continued to shrink from 2018’s FM!, rather, he seems to have settled into a pace, with his new self-titled album matching it at 22 minutes in length.

That, right there, is where essentially any similarities between the two albums stop. FM! was a summer breeze in the middle of winter, a West Coast beach bum effort, filled with warm guest turns. It wasn’t just the breeziest LP of the acclaimed rapper to date, it was by far the easiest to simply throw on. Vince Staples is another beast entirely.

It’s no mistake that this new brief affair bears his name. Starkly guestless, save a hook and some spoken interludes, Vince Staples is a monolith. On first, second, and even third impressions, it can feel inscrutable, impenetrable. Yet, with the more time spent within it, the more its pelts continue to wilt and warp into a merciless, laser-focused vision. Speaking on the album, Staples explained it was self-titled as he was revealing more about himself than ever before; “It really gives much more information about me that wasn’t out there before… This is another take on myself that I might not have had before.”

Compared to openly emotive, even heartbreaking Summertime ‘06, that may well not be apparent at first. However, there’s a harsh truth to his words. In short: this is the grimmest we’ve ever seen Vince Staples, a man apart, isolated, depressed and paranoid by turns.

“I don’t trust no bitch with my government,” he bitterly snarls on lead single “Law of Averages”. It’s immediately obvious these words are intended as far more than some tired display of sexism: the “bitch” seems to refer to anyone – even anything – in the rapper’s life. What’s more, while it’s easy to read as fatigue for our plagued nation’s wearying political situation, to me it more readily relates to the self, to his government: his very autonomy. He’s unable, or simply unwilling, to let anyone in enough to influence him in a meaningful way. 

When he reflects on years gone by and friends, they’re often, “n***as who lost they ways.” Even when speaking on the losses he’s suffered, Staples seems trapped somewhere between mourning and detachment, almost casually uttering, “Some of them outside still / Some of them inside graves.” He’s never expressed much interest in fame, and the picture painted here makes why clearer than ever: there’s simply no room in his head (or heart) for additional, needless drama.

The world of Vince Staples is one that finds its creator afraid to shake his fans’ hands, living a life in which he tucks his gun into his swimming trunks on the way to the beach: there is no moment in which he can unwind. It’s no real surprise, then, that it feels as if every second of the album is a last gasp to get these tortured words out. Every second is well spent, with even the interludes serving exacting purposes; “The Apple & The Tree” finds his mother in a reflective, if blunt, mood, while “Lakewood Mall” features one his closest friends, Pac Slim, recalling a fraught evening in which Staples missed potential violence (or an arrest) simply by choosing to stay in.

Vince Staples is certainly not an easy album to tap into, nor a particularly fun one, but for those interested in a piece of art in which the barrier between the creator and onlooker is veritably nonexistent, to the point of shared claustrophobia, look no further. This is merciless music. There’s nothing else it could be when the voice behind it has no mercy for himself. Staples’ scars have never been more visible: he’s practically put them on display for the world at large. If that’s not bravery, I don’t know what is.

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