With the July release of his double-disc debut album, Summertime '06, and a gig as opener on A$AP Rocky's September tour, rapper Vince Staples has emerged as a contender for hip-hop royalty. His plainspoken lyrics and cool flow give his work a stark finality that often turns to the funereal on tunes such as "Blue Suede," in which "young graves get the bouquets." The protagonist sings, "Hope I outlive those red roses." He plays Union Transfer on Wednesday.
In conversation, Staples seems not so much severe as pragmatic, realistic, but willing to see silver linings. "You don't have to look for one, err on the side of the good or the bad," he says, "just be straight." He's speaking from his longtime home in Long Beach, Calif., the setting of so many of his stories.
Staples says he isn't exaggerating when he portrays the hard life in Long Beach ("yeah, my mom had to move me out of there for a minute to keep me out of trouble") - but neither is he fudging or pandering when he finds traces of hope. "Dark. Light. Life is as optimistic as you make it. The fact that we're alive - that you and I are talking right now - is a positive thing. That's optimistic. Things could be a hell of a lot worse. I don't want to be paralyzed by fear. Same for people listening to me. I want to tell the truth - in that way, I'm hoping we can appreciate what we all have, each and every one of us."
He did not set out to be a rapper. "I never had that aspiration," he says. "Then again, I didn't have any job really before that" - said with a laugh. He happened into hip-hop through friends of friends of the Odd Future collective and one of its principles, Earl Sweatshirt. "Earl encouraged me, not just to hang out in the studio, but do something," says Staples.
"I think the biggest part of our problem is that we lie to each other too much or exaggerate," says Staples. "Try to make things look good when they're bad or bad when they're good - there's a lot of lies - just be straight."
From West Coast to East, an unexpected parallel arises between Staples and Bruce Springsteen, in the grittiness of the reality each describes, and the hard-won pride in that reality nevertheless. On "Norf Norf," Staples sing-speaks, "I ain't never ran from nothin' but the police / From the city where the skinny carry strong heat," with stand-up pride and pleasure. It's a sentiment you recognize from "Thunder Road" or one of the Boss' Jersey street soliloquies.
Staples might not be a religious man, but - just to show he's not immune to hope - he intones the name of the Lord on "Jump Off the Roof" ("I pray to God 'cause I need him"). But in his lyrics, God is a crutch for those without hope.
"To a lot of people, God is a last resort," he says. "It is what it is. 'When you have nothing else, you turn to God.' I can't say that for me. But I get it."
Staples finds solace in the streets of Long Beach, which he talks about incessantly on Summertime '06. He says he has a greater appreciation for them now. "I know I said a lot of hard stuff about my area," he says, "but I think I helped show how great of a place I live in, too, a place where you honestly never have to leave." The only place he'd rather be is on South Street, eating at Ishkabibble's. "Maybe I'd get an Ishkabibble's franchise if I wasn't rapping," he says. "How bad could life be with that?"