Vince Staples On How Travel Has Changed His Outlook On Life And Music

The Long Beach, California MC Vincent “Vince” Staples has been heralded as a hip-hop renaissance man. But he’s more interested in embracing possibilities in the wider music scene – and beyond.

Staples, the youngest of four, grew up enmeshed in a survivalist gang culture – his father jailed. He merely rapped for fun prior to being introduced to members of the Odd Future fold. Staples would cameo on Earl Sweatshirt’s projects. Yet he established his own name with mixtapes – notably the Mac Miller-helmed Stolen Youth. Staples was signed to Def Jam by No ID – the legendary Chicago beatmaker behind Common. In 2015, following his Hell Can Wait EP, Staples presented his debut album, Summertime ’06 – an ambitious double-set. He liaised with producers as diverse as No ID, DJ Dahi and cloud rap auteur Clams Casino. Summertime ’06 charted Staples’ coming of age amid poverty, struggle, and endemic racism. However, the artwork, unexpectedly referencing Joy Division’s 1979 post-punk opus Unknown Pleasures, amplified a powerful macro theme of urban nihilism. Though the album, led by the dark single Señorita (featuring Future), only just scraped into the US Top 40, it was critically acclaimed.

Last summer Staples hit Australia, headlining Laneway alongside his Odd Future buddies The Internet. Today the 23-year-old raves about the experience. “It was great – I had a great time,” Staples recalls smoothly down a muffled line. He performed some of his “greatest” – and “biggest” – shows here. “It’s probably my favourite place I’ve traveled so far.” Now, after blessing fellow Laneway stalwart Flume’s Smoke & Retribution on Skin, he’s returning in November for the Sydneysider’s juggernaut. “I can’t wait to go back,” Staples extols.

Travel has changed the rapper’s outlook on life – and music. “I think it’s reassuring to know that life is the same everywhere and people do the same everywhere and we all go through the same things,” Staples ponders. “It kinda helps you feel more connected to the people you make music with. In my instance, I guess, it makes me feel more responsible for the things that I say and how I portray my message to people. So I’ve loved traveling – it’s definitely made me a better person and made my music become a better thing.”

Staples is less a hip-hop head than a music boffin. He’ll listen to anything, regardless of genre (the MC has given props to Solange Knowles’ avant-soul A Seat At The Table on Twitter). Staples was unfamiliar with Flume when canvassed for a collab, but “researched up on his music”. His DJ, Westside Ty, was a fan. Staples praises the future bass “superstar” for seeking him out while he “was still on the small scale”.

This August, Staples dropped a conceptual EP, Prima Donna, accompanied by a short film – its director former Australian resident (and Kanye West cohort) Nabil Elderkin. It centres on a rap star who self-destructs. A$AP Rocky guests on the title-track. “I just didn’t wanna make an album at this time,” Staples says. Inherently communal, the rapper suggests that Prima Donna‘s “great” producers – new ally James Blake, No ID and DJ Dahi – enabled him to “figure out” what he wanted to convey. And Staples talks of “keeping it creative and not necessarily falling into the easy approach”.

Staples’ bond with Blake seems unlikely. But the Brit post-dubstepper has emerged as a cult figure in urban circles, working with Chance The Rapper, Beyoncé Knowles and Frank Ocean. Staples rapped on a remix of Blake’s tech-house banger Timeless (originally set to feature Yeezy) and joined him on stage at Glastonbury. In turn, Blake produced two Prima Donna tracks – including the OutKast-sampling War Ready. “Like I said earlier, when we spoke about traveling, seeing the world and just seeing the common ground with the people, you start to see that within everyone you meet,” Staples says of their rapport. Blake apparently hopes to cut more music with Staples. The intrigue is mutual. “James – there’s a lot to him. A lot of people don’t know a lot of things about James. He doesn’t talk much. But James is very complex and interesting and smart. He’s very individual.”

Staples is noncommittal about when he might follow Summertime ’06. “I mean, I’m always thinking, I’m always coming up with new ideas – it’s only a matter of time.”

Staples is routinely bracketed with Kendrick Lamar, another West Coast renaissance hip-hopper, but his perspective is distinct. While K-Dot looms as a ‘conscious’ MC, Staples operates within the gangsta rap idiom to expose its genesis – inequality. Still, not everyone gets it. Recently, a white Christian mother took to Facebook Live to tearily protest the lyrics to Norf Norf, the third single from Summertime ’06, having purportedly heard it on commercial radio during a school run. The clip went viral – the mom mocked. Ironically, Staples defended her right to an opinion , before stating irritatedly, “Thats [sic] all I have to say about that. Stop asking me.” Perhaps he considers it petty drama.

In fact, Staples himself has expressed ambivalence towards hip-hop – or, at least, towards its adulation of celebrity, materialism, and glamour. He’s renowned for abstaining from drink and drugs – and a scholarly past. Nevertheless, Staples maintains that he’s simply more concerned with bigger social issues. It’s why this altruist is now involved in a YMCA program back home. “That’s really my focus – just making sure that we have a better world that we live in.”

Staples may be a political artist, but he’s disinterested in the US Presidential campaign – and whether the divisive Donald Trump could win. “I honestly don’t know,” he says. “But we’ve seen crazy things – we’ve had Ronald Reagan be an actor and turn into a President… I just think we have to all sit around and wait and see what’s gonna happen – but hopefully it doesn’t have to get to that. I don’t really know much about politics – it’s something I could be more well versed in – but we’ll see.”

‘Prima Donna’ is out now. Grab a copy here. Vince Staples will return to Australia in December to support Flume on his national tour.

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