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“Dead or in jail” is a phrase that often gets thrown around hip-hop depictions of life in streets. It’s a poignant summation of a life with few options for improvement. “Dead or in jail” has been used in the past to espouse toughness, and the rejection of those options as an ambitious rages-to-riches mentality that propelled those saying it out of the cycle of violence, poverty and systematic oppression, and into a life of entertainment business fame. “I drove by the fork in the road and went straight,” raps JAY Z on “Renegade,” describing how he chose a third option: hip-hop. “I didn’t accept the false choice between poverty and breaking the law. I found my own way through and with my music, I try to help others see their way through it, too,” he reflected years later. This moment of reflection, a self-aware assessment of life in the streets and an honest portrayal of the psychological toll it takes on those facing the fork in the road is something expected of those at Hov’s age. Vince Staples is more than half JAY Z’s age, but raps with comparable wisdom and courage to portray the streets in all their un-glory of someone who has “made it out” for decades.
Staples’ newest full-length record is titled Summertime ‘06 for a reason. The Long Beach native was forced to grow up fast this time nine years ago when his friend Jabari Benton was shot dead. “It affected my life in [every] way possible that’s nothing a child should experience,” he said at this year’s American Music Awards. And as a result, Staples’ music takes a pass on the gang-glorifying, street machismo of much of the West Coast’s gangsta rap past. His music comes with an enlightenment and an insistence on keeping it real that paints Staples as a down-to-earth observer, and at times, participant, of gang culture. The simple message of Vince Staples’ music is this: street life is not something to be enjoyed or glorified, it’s something to be escaped from because participating in it for too long will leave you “dead or in jail.”
There’s a frantic sense of urgency on Summertime ‘06 that underscores this desire to escape life on the streets. Vince began his career alongside the likes of Earl Sweatshirt and Speak!, delivering intense and violent lyrics with almost sociopathic detachment. And while Earl has largely kept up the apathetic tone, even when confessing his deep psychological issues, Staples speaks with a tone of concern. Summertime ‘06 sees him shouting in an often melodic cadence that evokes the feeling of a “ghetto nursary rhyme.” “Dooooope I’m the maaaaaan” he hollers in the background of “Dopeman,” sounding like an approaching police siren behind Kilo Kish’s haunting whisper of a chorus. Kish also appears in similar fashion on the Clams Casino- produced “Surf.” Staples paints one of his many pictures of real, unglorified life in the ghetto, rapping, “More black kids killed from a pill than the Feds in the projects / In the planned parenthood playin’ God with ya mom’s check, you ain’t even been to prom yet.” Clams Casino contributes two other beats on the project “Norf Norf” and “Summertime.” The former is a mix of ethereal droning synths and bouncing percussion, the latter backed by guitar samples that evoke the album art’s sample, Unknown Pleasures.
Staples has always branded himself as someone that keeps it real. His deadpan commentary on life as he sees it, makes for great interviews. The most effective songs on Summertime ‘06 are the most straightforward and simple ones. Since being made known, Vince has always been acknowledged for his lyric capability more so than his ability to make catchy hooks. Most of the choruses Staples has crafted are not to be the most impactful element of the track and serve only as short refrains to reinforce the theme of the song. “Wanna hang, wanna bang, wanna slang?” gets repeated eight times on “Hang N’ Bang;” so does “on three let’s jump off the roof” on “Jump Off The Roof.” Perhaps the most memorable hook on the album comes from a sampled Future line in “Señorita.” Staples has saved his writing talents for the verses, the best of which serve as frantic depictions of life in the ghetto and his place in a dangerous environment. “Ho, this sh*t ain’t Gryffindor, we really killin’, kickin’ doors / Fight between my conscious, and the skin that’s on my body / Man, I need to fight the power, but I need that new Ferrari,” he raps on the opening track “Lift Me Up,” setting the tone with depictions of gang life and the psycholigical struggles that come with being a rapper that has “made it out.”
The album takes a musical risk, production-wise. Like the No I.D.-produced Common LP Nobody’s Smiling before it, Summertime ‘06 is a musically and thematically complex depiction of life in the streets. Guitar solos, distorted autotune wheezing reminiscent of 2010 Kanye, Kish’s whispered choruses, and Vince’s melodic yelling pepper the album. Not all of it works to full effect. Daley’s bridge on “Birds & Bees” is rendered incomprehensible by delay and reverb. But the production succeeds in creating an intense dissonant feeling on many of the songs as if to say, “this is not a place you want to be.”
None of these songs, save for “Señorita” are radio singles in the traditional sense. Unlike rappers that make their gang affiliations known to listeners like YG, Staples refuses to make gang culture easily digestible for those outside of the lifestyle. Devoid of any “Mustard on the beat” bounce, Summertime ‘06 positions itself as something of a post-gangsta rap album. Staples is able to let listeners be aware that he came from the streets without constantly having to prove himself. In the gang-glorifying eyes of a lot of his fans and hip-hop listeners in general, lyrics like “so we put a AK where Kiana and them stay / And that’s for any n*gga say he got a problem wit’ me” are not only acceptable but valued for its “hood-ness.” Vince, however, is aware of all this; he wants you to look into lines like these and realize that they represent real life for him and many of his friends. There’s nothing to be glorified when three people in the “Blue Suede” video are in jail and one is dead. If there’s anything to be gained from the urgency in Staples’ voice, it’s this sense of perspective. Summer is when gang violence peaks, and rather than providing a soundtrack to encourage it, Summertime ‘06 tries at least in part to offer a guide to its problems, in the form of observations from one of its survivors wise beyond his years.