It’s a big step getting signed to the majors, and Def Jam is as major as any. For California rapper Vince Staples, this record deal was the culmination of years skirting the underground before gaining prominence in the past 24 months.
I was first introduced to Staples when I started examining the tracklistings from Earl Sweatshirt and Mike G‘s first few releases. It was early 2012 and Odd Future’s The OF Tape Vol. 2 was banging on all my friends’ sound systems. This was before Loiter Squad and the subsequent disintegration of the group as the individual artists went, for the most part, their own ways. It was the height of my interest in them and when I saw the name Vince Staple associated with songs like “epaR” and “Moracular World” I decided to dig deeper into this violent, vile artist who was running with the OF boys.
Shyne Coldchain Vol. 1 appeared in a Datpiff search when Wikipedia couldn’t give me any answers, and I listened to the mixtape with apprehensive eagerness. It was good. The beats were utilitarian and dirty, Vince’s vocals a recriminating whine. I burned a CD-R of the mixtape which soon made the rounds in my friend group: Vince Staples was hot shit.
Later that year, Vince Staples and Michael Uzowuru releases Winter in Prague, a ten song mixtape that was good but just shy of the mark set by SCV1. It wasn’t a discouraging project, though. Staples followed in in 2013 with his breakthrough mixtape Stolen Youth, a Mac Miller produced release with the cohesion and consistency of an official album and featuring guest spots from Schoolboy Q, Joey Fatts, Ab-Soul and Mac Miller himself. Stolen Youth had a cleaner sound than the previous mixtapes, but maintained many of the themes of the first two: growing up without a father, the allure and even necessity of selling drugs, the struggle to be true to your values in the face of institutional violence.
In March of this year, Staples returned to the spotlight with Shyne Coldchain Vol. 2, and impressive mixtape which simultaneously propelled him to new heights of stardom and also polarized his fanbase. With some outlets calling it a “bold and important tape” and “impactful in every song,” the mixtape also received criticism for content which seemed intentionally (and unnecessarily) shocking (as in album opener “Progressive 3,” where Staples talks about killing God and refers to President Obama using a pejorative racial epithet) and unnecessarily moralizing. Gone was the ambivalent Vince Staples, documentarian of street life; here was patronizing Vince Staples, critic of the system, advocate for the less fortunate. Beyond the rhetoric, there was another issue with SCV2. It wasn’t gritty or gangster. The songs were, beyond their reaction-baiting rhetoric, sterile and mundane.
Hell Can Wait, the debut EP from Vince Staples on a major label, has cleared up the matter of what his goals are. Staples is in it for the money. I can’t blame him. I like money myself. Unlike other money-seeking rappers like Freddie Gibbs and Joey Bada$$, however, Staples has given up a lot of what made him unique in the pursuit of fame and fortune, and the most strikingly absent quality is his voice.
Plain and simple, this doesn’t sound like Vince rapping. I was halfway through the mixtape before I realized this wasn’t another string of Mac Miller features. It’s Vince Staples, no longer nasal and accented, rapping in a white man’s voice. For comparison, listen to “Hostile” from his debut mixtape. Now listen to “65 Hunnid” off Hell Can Wait. Yes, it’s still Vince Staples, but it’s not the Vince Staples I appreciate.
I felt that the rug had been pulled out from under me, revealing a boring gray floor underneath, pockmarked where people had carved little chunks out of the wood and filled them in with white plaster. Perhaps for this reason I initially had a strong negative reaction towards the EP. Then I listened a couple more times and found plenty of other things I hate about it.
Staples has been cowed and tamed. He no longer raps with a dark, resigned disappointment in his voice. Even when he’s complaining about his childhood, he sounds happy and upbeat. There’s a voice effect on “Fire” that makes him sound distorted and noisy. This comes across as forced and formulaic, no longer a modulation mean to develop the tone of the song, but rather an engineered attempt to add an “edge” to an otherwise boring song.
While fellow Cutthroat Boyz member Joey Fatts is out producing for Curren$y, more than half the beats on this seven track offering come from Hagler, a no-name producer with fewer than a thousand Twitter followers and a serious lack of imagination. Many of the beats on this EP, such as “Screen Door,” sound like an attempt to cash in on the weird, experimental nature of early Vince Staples and Odd Future beats. To me at least, they sound forced and awkward, like a person pretending to be retarded because they can’t get attention just being their self.
Vince is a castrated bull, formerly lively and aggressive, now content to graze in the green pastures and take the easy way out. This has been a trying year for me as a fan of Vince Staples, and it seems official that he’s traded in his technical proficiency, vivid story telling and biting honesty for an opportunity to release music that’s weaker than cancer patients after their third round of chemotherapy. However, like a cancer patient, there is a chance that Vince can get better, and I will remain hopeful that someday he’ll get back to his roots, the sound of his early days, a distant memory from the swirly crucible of 2011/2012.