Vincent Jamal Staples doesn’t have to hide behind an MC name, middle name, or street name, at a time when most of his fellow rappers of the gangster tradition wouldn’t be caught dead using their government name. That should let you know what Vince is about — encompassing on wax all of the multidimensional personality contained within his lanky, 5-foot-6-inch frame. The third-generation Crip, quick-witted comedian, contemplative philosopher, black activist, lover, proud Long Beach representative, anti-capitalist, anti-rapper, nihilist, and straight-edge gentleman all show up and show out.
At age 23 he already has a catalogue that most rappers would kill for. Even quicker than the late Christopher Wallace (who released an excellent debut and massive double-disc follow-up before the age of 24), Staples has dropped a behemoth double disc album with very little fat to trim along with a follow-up that pushed his sound and the sonics of rap as a whole — not to mention two killer EPs and four mixtapes with moments that hinted at all of what Staples is today. Now that we’ve had a few months to digest Big Fish Theory in all its synth-doused, electro-rap glory, let’s explore how it fits in with the rest of the LBC’s finest’s works. It’s crazy how many good songs this man has at his age, and a 10 Best Songs could be done on Summertime ’06 alone, so feel free to gripe or make a case for your fave in the comments as usual. Here’s what I came up with.
10. “Summertime” (from Summertime ’06, 2015)
It’s rare you get a love song from Shyne Coldchain, but damn is this a good one. This is Staples at his rawest and most vulnerable. He’s admitting that he’s confused about his place in the world as a black man and a criminal (they do not go hand-in-hand) and is looking to his partner to help him work through it after helping rid them of their fears as well. Staples also lets his guard down on Prima Donna and Big Fish Theory (consider those depressing transitions on Prima Donna), but none of his attempts beyond “Summertime” are as beautifully dark and melancholy. There are no rhyme schemes to pick apart — no double meanings, slick metaphors, or bravado. It’s just honesty, empathy, and susceptibility culminating in a touching plea to not leave him lonely. An album full of sentimentality from Staples probably wouldn’t fly, but he’s more than capable of evoking emotion when he wants to, and “Summertime” is emo Staples at his best.
9. “Pimp Hand” (from Prima Donna, 2016)
Lyricism is not necessarily what Staples is known for, but he’s no slouch with the bars. He’s not a tactical technician like Eminem. He’s not quite the knowledge-dropper that prime Nas or Jay was. He’s not a trap mumbler who uses his voice like it’s another line in the track stack of whatever software program he records in. But he can do any of those things when he chooses. He absolutely snaps on “Pimp Hand” simply because it’s “time to show these bitches who the man.”
Not a bar is wasted. Not only are there multis stacked on multis, there are internal rhymes leading up to them. When lines don’t have at least three syllables rhyming in them, there’s some type of witty wordplay like “no cease” placed close to “no Biggie” just to emphasize that he’s coming from the left side of the map. And if that isn’t enough, there are some clever similes and metaphors you might gloss over if you’re not listening closely. Staples always has a certain density in his rhymes that you have to sink into to comprehend, but “Pimp Hand” runneth over with wordplay. It gives you the sense that he could damage every beat like he does his foes, whether it’s just beef or he’s trying to catch his next meal. This song simultaneously lets you know what he’s capable of at any time, and makes you appreciate the artistry in his restraint to let other aspects of his personality shine on other tracks.
8. “Jump Off The Roof” (from Summertime ’06, 2015)
It can be easy to forget that young Shyne Coldchain is straightedge. He’s said so on wax a few times, but it’s more apparent in his interviews than it is in music because he raps about controlled substances and vices as if he indulges in them himself. “Jump Off The Roof” is the pinnacle of this incongruity. The vividness of the hedonistic scenarios he paints makes it feel like he has experiential knowledge. He details the rush of getting high with someone you love and how the ecstasy of that love is a potent drug in itself, making the experience even more transcendent. Yet, as poignant as he is blissful in his intemperance, he depicts the comedown. Seizures, withdrawals, insomnia, breathlessness, and exasperation beautifully darken the mood of the song, and lead to probably the bleakest hook he’s written in his career.
All of this darkness emanates from someone who claims to get the highest he’s ever been from catching contacts on stage that make his asthma flare up. The man has even gone so far as to condemn drug glorification in rap and say, “There’s better things we can teach these kids than which drugs to take.” Perhaps this is just the knowledge of an astute child who watched a father both push and abuse drugs (more on that later), but it feels like more. Staples is already a better comedian than most actual comedians, and if “Jump Off The Roof” is any indication, he would probably be great at writing fiction. It is my humble opinion that the obsession with authenticity in rap has flattened many a rapper’s dimension, so it’s rare and refreshing to hear an artist deviate from that standard so skillfully and engagingly — even if the song happens to be about taking a Neo-like Matrix dive into the concrete to test the limits of reality and what it means to be alive.
7. “BagBak” (from Big Fish Theory, 2017)
Staples’ complexity can lead to contradiction reminiscent of Tupac Shakur. In the same way Pac could talk how he got around and then let the world know about Brenda and her baby, Staples can tell a “bitch” she needs to obey her thirst with a Sprite and then tell her that her presence is needed in the Oval Office for the country to be a better place. Understanding Staples’ dimensions from the political to the misogynistic and everywhere in between is key to being a fan or even beginning to approach some semblance of comprehension through a critical lens. The political Democrip and the third-generation Crip that will shoot you for calling him a crab in front of the Douglas Burger are one in the same. One doesn’t exist without the other, and they are equally evocative.
“BagBak” is Staples at his most politically progressive. He hits the entire breadth of political topics that he’s covered in his entire catalogue up to this point in the span of of just over two and a half minutes. He blazes through colorism, black materialism, police brutality, the falseness of mainstream hip-hop tenets, the prison industrial complex, America’s obsession with race, and diversity in the Oval Office, and comes full circle back to colorism without sounding preachy or corny or detracting from the danceable quality of the song. You can just dance and ride along with the catchiness of the hook if you don’t choose to engage with the knowledge being dropped by the most enlightened gangster of the new wave, but the song is absolutely incredible when you digest it as a whole. Staples is beloved for the scope of topics he can cover within any given song or complete body of work, weaving some consciousness in with what he will admit is ignorance, but he proves he can do one without the other and keep things just as provocative no matter which way he leans.
6. “Blue Suede” (from Hell Can Wait, 2014)
If “BagBak” is Staples at his most progressive, then “Blue Suede” finds him at his most willfully ignorant. But there is still an astuteness that separates “Blue Suede” from your run-of-the-mill banger by your average rapper, even if it stands apart from much of his catalogue. The verses start with some regular-ass rapper bars about women not being shit, and evolve into commentary about how the allure of gang life can be inescapable for a young black man growing up in certain parts of Southern California. In Staples’ more recent songs and interviews, we can hear a man that despises materialism and praises fiscal responsibility. But on “Blue Suede,” we get a kid still fully immersed in the environment of his upbringing, an environment where colors were cool (or bool, depending on affiliation) and some people are conditioned to value sneakers over human life. The symbol of the blue suede Jordan IIIs that were the object of a young Coldchain’s desire is a powerful one, and one that fits with his tendency toward repetitive hooks that serve as reprieves from breathless, lyrical onslaughts. “Blue Suede” highlights Staples’ growth more than any song on this list, but it also lets you know that he had a hell of a head start on most rappers to begin with.
5. “Nate” (from Shyne Coldchain II, 2014)
“Nate” is a supremely special song on many different levels, and no, one of them is not the fact that Vince didn’t know it samples Bobby Taylor & The Vancouvers’ underrated Motown classic “Malinda.” It occupies its own unique niche in the songs-about-fathers category. Most songs we think of within this classification are either odes to daddy dearest that you’d find on the perennial Father’s Day playlist or shots at the old man. The warmth and affection of ballads like Luther Vandross’ “Dance With My Father,” Eric Clapton’s “My Father’s Eyes,” and Beyoncé’s country-leaning “Daddy Lessons” come to mind, as does the disdain in Madonna’s “Oh Father” or Tupac’s “Papa’z Song.” But there are few famous songs about dad that show the complexity of the father-child relationship like Bruce Springsteen’s “Independence Day” or “My Father’s House,” or the Temptations’ “Papa Was A Rolling Stone.”
In rap, there is typically more complexity in fatherhood because most rappers have come of age in an era where one in three black males sees prison time and the demographic has the highest death rates of any in the United States. Ta-Nehisi Coates’ harrowing article on the destruction of the black family through the prison industrial complex highlighted the devastating effects in 2015, and sadly the stats haven’t changed much. Songs like the aforementioned “Papa’z Song” and the Game’s “Like Father, Like Son” note the pain that often comes with having an absent father and what the artist has worked through to come to terms with the man he is today. Vince’s contemporaries, like Tyler, The Creator and Earl Sweatshirt, often extend a cursory “fuck you” to their fathers without going deeper into why that relationship (or lack thereof) is so strained.
The way Staples looks at his father on “Nate” encompasses the richness of his personality as a rapper, especially one of the gangster variety. In the same song he is vulnerable enough to hold his father up high on a pedestal through the eyes of his younger self and then still able to shed a critical light on him in that same elevated position of admiration, like a cashier trying to eye a counterfeit $20 bill. He goes from wanting to kill a man because his father did to empathizing with his mother for not letting his father in the house, understanding why she had to keep his dad awake some nights so he wouldn’t overdose on the same drugs he sold. Staples does all of this with a raw, deadpan tone and delivery that straddles the line between stoic and eerie because of the lack of emotion. There isn’t another rapper in the game today that could tell this compelling of a story about their upbringing so evocatively, and there probably won’t be another for a very long time, if ever. “Nate” deserves a spot with the classics of its ilk.
4. “Lift Me Up” (from Summertime ’06, 2015)
Staples’ intelligence is the reason why he’s constantly asked to riff on random topics off the top of his head, and he never really disappoints. His intellect is easily apparent in interviews and features as well. It’s present in pretty much every song he writes, but there are few songs where he flexes and waxes philosophically like “Lift Me Up.” From beginning to end, the duality and hypocrisy he continually calls out through instances of racism and classism, his influences, and his own experiences is nothing short of brilliant.
Name another artist that could connect the hypocrisy of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards filching from Muddy Waters, his mother being a Christian Crip who carries guns, Versace coming up on endorsements from rappers without giving them any credit, more biblical imagery of Moses, Zulu Kingdom ruler Shaka Zulu, Nirvana, Madonna, a famous sushi spot, and an Uber driver with the profile of a cannibalistic serial killer all in one verse. Not only does it all make sense, there’s clever commentary laced throughout each mention of a new, seemingly incongruous subject that fits with the loose motif of the pretense of life.
Vince’s perspective is certainly unique, but his ability to highlight its singularity while it continues to evolve is where his true value lies as an artist. “Lift Me Up” arguably puts that skill on display more than any other song in his catalogue.
3. “Señorita” (from Summertime ’06, 2015)
Banging is a large part of Staples’ identity. But unlike West Coast rappers with affiliations in the past, the current wave details much more about the set life and how it impacts their psyche and everyday lives. No artist in the new breed of rappers cut from red or blue cloth gets more mileage out of their banging past than Staples, and no one does it quite like him. Where artists of the past would highlight and maybe romanticize the violent aspects of their former lifestyle, Coldchain treats it like it’s just another breath.
“Señorita” showcases just how cold he can get and how little energy it takes for him to get that dark place. Hence lines like “He called me a crab/ So I shot him in front of the Douglas” or “My burner gets stuck if I shoot it too much/ So a nigga resorted to doming” said with a nonchalant, matter-of-fact tone more appropriate for something like “I ran out of eggs, so I went to the store.” He’s admitted that the lifestyle is stupid, and it was something passed down to him that he never really asked for, but it felt natural because he knew nothing else. Many artists of the gangster ilk never evolve to look back critically on their time in the set. Vince isn’t as far removed from gang life as other artists, but he makes it seem like he was in the trenches decades ago while holding onto the ability to make us feel like the shit went down yesterday.
His ability to look critically at the life that was bequeathed to him before he could create his own leaks into his anti-rap sentiments as well, and those two facets of his persona come together on “Señorita” better than they do anywhere else in his catalogue. He’s hinted at lines that take shots at other rapper’s authenticity like “if it’s shooters in the squad what’s the bodyguard for,” but he rarely dismantles rap tenets to the extent he does on “Señorita.” True Religion, “fast life, money, and clothes,” hoes, and all the rap tropes of old get riddled with metaphorical and literal bullets. But the contradiction of Vince still being interested in BMWs, Goyard luggage, and foreign whips adds an extra element of dissonance that is endlessly intriguing.
Many a rapper tries to pull off railing against the tropes of the genre, but no one in the new school does it quite like Vince, and that’s what makes “Señorita” great. Well, that and flipping a Future lyric to tear down everything he raps about is pure genius.
2. “War Ready” (from Prima Donna, 2016)
It’s a bold move to put André 3000 on your track, even when it’s just some recycled bars. André had already fulfilled his one-unbelievable-verse-a-year quota on Blonde when “War Ready” dropped, but heads fiend for his lyrical gymnastics in any form they can get them. Vince Staples ain’t ever run from nothing but the police, though, so he’s war ready. It’s not a “yeah I sampled your voice, you was using it wrong” situation, but Staples ups the caliber of 3 Stacks’ “stronger weapon that never runs out of ammunition” and hits “War Ready” with thought-penetrating bullets.
Rap is slight work compared to living life as a young black man in America, and especially as one in gangland Long Beach playing a deadly, never-ending game of tag that older generations passed down. So when Staples says, “Learned the power of words when we was younger/ Saying fuck the sign on his curb can make him hunt you,” you know why he uses his syllables with fatal precision as he executes the plans drawn up in the war room of his mind. Unfortunately, he has to do that to survive, and though it’s been said “a black man is better off dead,” he will not be killed or even worse, silenced. Staples rarely goes full political as opposed to littering conscious lines throughout a track, but damn is it a treat when he does. “War Ready” is probably his best political song, because as “woke” as it is, this joint also just slaps something stupid.
1. “Norf Norf” (from Summertime ’06, 2015)
There really isn’t much to explain on this one. This track is Staples himself distilled into three minutes. Vince reps his hood to the fullest and makes a damn convincing case as the rap mayor of Long Beach. Sorry, Snoop. The Doggfather will always be a legend, but as for relevancy right now, no one is topping Mr. Staples. The appeal of this song lies in how unconventional it is despite adhering to the same rap tropes that have existed for decades now. Staples doesn’t really mention anything other than his hood, the distinctions between “ladies” and “hoes” and “bitches,” toting guns, shooting said guns, getting money, and police relations. But there is still a novelty and zest in his delivery that resonates with all levels of rap fans from the casual mainstream turn-up indulger to the underground-or-die fanatic. I would be remiss not to mention that Clams Casino murdered that woozy, winding beat, and that none of what Vince brought to the table would be possible without it. Who else needs that Clammy Clams x Shyne Coldchain full-length?
“Norf Norf” proves that Staples could just be your average mainstream dude if he wanted to and be pretty successful at it, but he chooses to stay true to himself and accentuate the many layers to his personality through his unique perspective instead. That really is art at its truest.