A few minutes later Vince Staples walks up with a group, I surmise: friends, a girlfriend, and a publicist. We’re introduced and make our way to a set of four tan chairs; Staples sits across from me. He’s young, only 21 years old, but composed and expressive, with much to say.
In the weeks prior, Staples’ exposure has sailed after the release of two songs: “Blue Suede” and “Hands Up.” These come after a flurry of guest appearances featuring his shine-stealing voice on songs with Earl Sweatshirt, Jhene Aiko, and Common. Both tracks are fervent, even incendiary.
In the wake of Michael Brown and Ezell Ford, “Hands Up” touches on a nauseating but sadly relevant topic, the deaths of young black men at the hands of local police. Specifically, Staples mentions Tyler Woods of Rialto and Deangelo Lopez of Compton, both killed by police gunfire in 2013. The questionable details provided by police at both crime scenes have only enhanced the anger of the surrounding communities.
“Blue Suede” is the single from his forthcoming Hell Can Wait EP, and splits your ears with unending bass, all framed around Staples’ Long Beach drawl. In the lyrics, the blue suede finds its complement in the red bouquets placed at the graves of those who died young: Hope I outlive them red roses. [Note: It may be nothing, but worthy to note that these are respectively the colors of two of L.A.’s most notorious gangs, the Crips and the Bloods.]
Tell me about growing up in Long Beach. I’m one of those people that feel like it’s the same for a lot of people everywhere. You deal with the same thing. People’s circumstances change. I feel like I had a normal childhood. A lot of the stuff that went wrong with me were choices; a lot of stuff went right. Everybody’s going to have ups and downs, but from the outside looking in it looks like we had it hard, so to say. And I guess that’s true, but the way that we interacted with each other made it not seem so bad.
You’ve likened rappers to lions in a cage and listeners to onlookers, safely behind the glass. Can you expand on that? What I want to get across, too, is it’s not the listener’s fault. We as artists don’t make it seem serious enough. Our job is to educate these people to what’s going on. Because some people might be going through it and some people might just be becoming aware. If we have their attention, we try to do the most we can with that.
Even Long Beach, people come to L.B. and say, “Oh, it looks nice.” The worst part is the worst part. I didn’t grow up in the projects or anything like that. It’s decent. But it’s the mind state of people, not really their surroundings. And we have to help people get out of that mind state, and the best way to do it is through music. We have a blessing to give [this point of view] to the [listeners’] subconscious. So why not use that to put good things in people’s heads?
Do you feel hip-hop is a need or a hobby? As far as making music, it always started out as a hobby. And that’s why, I think, that keeps some of the fun in it. Then it’s not like you have a pressure to do something. But it definitely is a need because it provides for my family. It is a need. And I feel like if I’m going be benefiting from the wealth of it, why can’t other people benefit too?
So the issue’s theme is the grind. What does that mean to you? When I hear the grind, I just really think about people trying their hardest to get out of their parents’ situation. It’s a hard process. It’s not going to come easy. Someone who is particularly part of the grind is someone who’s not taking no for an answer. They’re going to do what they have to go through, to get what they want. That’s respecting.
Who do you think musically is a grinder? Honestly, when I look at people who have grinded the hardest, especially in my genre, I look at people like Kanye West, he’s been turned back millions of times. You look at YG who got written off as a party rapper, and he’s been making the same music for almost five or six years. Those are the people that really grinded to get exactly what they wanted.
I’m interested in your critique of the hip-hop scene as a whole, are you trying to push the genre? I feel like hip-hop shouldn’t be narrow-minded. It’s funny when people say, “Oh, this went pop.” The pop music is just short for popular music.
That Juicy J and Katy Perry song was just playing. What do you think of stuff like that? Honestly, you have to think of it from the artist’s point of view. If she wants her voice to get heard, as much as possible, you might have to do a couple things that are going to broaden your horizons to where people can come back and listen to your music and kind of get a part of your message. But, I mean, all pop music is popular music. And we can’t limit ourselves, because then we limit everything that we stand for. That’s one thing Kanye West, Jay-Z, even Tupac—people that we look up to as our heroes—finally got criticized for doing, what we all need to try to strive to do. Because why would you want to limit yourself?
Photographer: Jeremy Williams at photojw.com. Stylist: Maeve Reilly at maevereilly.com. Groomer: Darine Sengseevong. Styling Assistants: Jennifer Annang and Laura Kiechle. Location: The Line Hotel, L.A. at thelinehotel.com.