vince staples on post-punk and why james joyce is like ol' dirty bastard
As his eagerly anticipated EP Prima Donna arrives, the sharp-witted Long Beach realist offers his thoughts on esoteric Irish literature, connecting with James Blake over Jamaican food, and his YMCA youth initiative.
Photography Eric Chakeen
Vince Staples has opinions and isn't afraid to share them. Reporters delight in quizzing the 23-year-old on everything from David Bowie identities to Amish people; other reporters collect these cerebral, wildly humorous, and, more often than not, spot-on observations and ask about them later. Staples doesn't seem to mind the random chatter all that much; he's become soberingly adept at telling it like it is. His debut album Summertime 06 — the laser-focused, uncompromising portrait of growing up amidst gang violence in Long Beach — cemented Staples' status as one of contemporary hip-hop's most resolutely potent communicators.
When we meet to discuss his new EP, Prima Donna — an intense, experimental collection of seven punch-packing tracks released today via Def Jam — the only thing Staples avoids in conversation is a didactic explanation of its influences or logic. "I'm on this thing where I'm not telling anyone anything. I think it's rude to tell someone how to perceive something that's up to their interpretation," he says. "If you're about to make a meal, it's not like, 'Oh tell me about this food you're about to serve.' Just eat it. If you like it, you like it, if you don't you don't — but you tell me about it. Imagine someone saying, 'Aw yeah, this is about to be savoury, or sweet.' Then it turns out the spiciest shit you've ever eaten."
Prima Donna is Staples at his most flavourful. It includes skittish, delightfully off-kilter production from James Blake; spacey yet textured vocal contributions from A$AP Rocky and Kilo Kish; and a crucial Andre 3000 sample. Below, we chew the fat.
I watched your What's in My Bag before you came by.
What did I pick up? I got a Joy Division coffee mug I think; maybe I already had it. I don't remember. That was like a year ago, like three days before my album came out. They just have a very slow editing system; they have Windows.
I'm just guessing.
You told them that you got into post-punk by living across the street from Mexicans.
Yeah, from Esther and Rudy. They like Morrissey and Tupac.
In your Fader cover shoot, you're wearing a shirt with Robert Smith and Mary Poole on it. How do you feel about The Cure? Did your neighbours listen to goth stuff too?
I like The Cure a little bit. I don't feel like I have to like anyone else's music, or it's mean for me to say I don't like it. It's not that it's bad, it just wasn't my type of thing. The Cure, though, they're kind of abrasive. They're having bad days. They'll fuck my day up. I already got that Joy Division bullshit in my head already; you can't do both.
The Cure is more melodic.
That's worse! It's scary, I think. Cause if you're sad and you're in a good mood while you're sad, then you're a psychopath. I don't want to be in that mood. Contentment with your sorrow is some sad shit. That's some Amy Winehouse shit, I'm not trying to deal with that.
You rap about the life you're living. What slices of life are on this record?
Kitchens, bathrooms, sinks, happy faces, smiley faces, Leonardo DaVinci and James Joyce, The Great Gatsby, Queen Latifah, the Vans song, Boyz n the Hood, Birdman and Mannie Fresh, Primavera Festival, Edgar Allan Poe, Ibiza.
A lot of literature. What have you been reading lately?
Nothing. The internet.
No James Joyce?
I hate James Joyce. And you're not about to pretend that shit's super deep, it makes no fucking sense. He's like ODB. Corey [Smyth, co-founder of Blacksmith Records, and Staples' manager], does James Joyce make sense?
CS: Difficult read. You'd mentioned James Joyce before, so I tried to reread it casually. You have to really focus, and I don't have the type of time to focus on this! You just can't work a day job and read this kind of stuff.
Another James, Blake, is on this record. How'd you guys link up?
Me and James met because he's a Jamaican person and I like Jamaican food. That was the essence of our friendship. He asked me to do something one one day, so I went over there. He said, "I don't really want you to do a song. I just wanted to meet you. You need beats or something?" I said sure.
You guys performed at Glastonbury, too.
The muddiest of muds. It was cool, I liked it. I had fun. A weird festival. Glastonbury is like having a really, really nice apartment in the worst project building ever. It's really smelly and the power doesn't work in the hallway, but once you get through your door, it's amazing. But it's a long walk from the garage to the door and you have to deal with that.
Let's talk about your youth initiative in Long Beach.
Those kids are bad as fuck. They're hilarious. It's through the YMCA, and they were really doing a good job with trying to give the kids opportunities. But a lot of these programs need funding and exposure, so that's how I was able to help. It's something I've been trying to do, but I wasn't able to do it on my own; them letting me be a part of it is really important to me. Those are good kids, ones who play by the books and stay out of trouble. I feel like in a lot of communities, we spend so much time on the bad kids that we don't reward the kids that are trying to do something good; that gives them no incentive to try to stay on the right path. They were already in the program, but I was able to help give them access to more resources. It shifts the focus from the trouble gang banger youth stigma that we always speak about. That's not even a real type of kid — there's no criminal kid, it's not fucking real.
Exactly. And this program gives kids actual creative resources and develops real skills.
Yeah, not everyone can play fucking football. Everyone can't be a rap star. It's just figuring out different jobs, whether it's managing or media -- learning how to work a camera, a grip. This 'you're a star or you're not' — that's not fair to children. You don't have to be the main focus in something that you love, but you can always be a part of it.
Text Emily Manning
Photography Eric Chakeen