Two years after the “good kid, m.A.A.d. city” drew the imaginations of hip hop heads all across America, the city south of Los Angeles comes alive once again on the stereo with Vince Staples’ new EP, Hell Can Wait. Staples is an artist with a street cred as long as his list of collaborations with artists like Odd Future and Mac Miller. In his new album, the seasoned rapper tells a disarmingly honest and uncomfortably up-front story that takes the listener by the hand through the streets of Long Beach. Never overwhelmingly edgy nor depressingly pessimistic, Hell Can Wait has Staples echoing “Hope I outlive them red roses,” a lyrical sign of the artist’s morning star peeking over the proverbial Long Beach horizon.
Though the album is only half an hour long, don’t mistake brevity for lack of depth and versatility. The rapper offers his thoughts on everything from gangbanging to police brutality from his own experiences in a coherent, rational fashion. Never hurried, the lyrics come from a deeply rooted place that he offers as soul food to his audience.
In “65 Hunnid,” Staples reflects on his days gangbanging, reminiscing “You alone / Car full of n*ggas but you alone / It’s time to show how much you love your homies.” Juxtaposing sex and gangbanging, Staples shows that his story isn’t the typical, “get money mo’ money” stories saturating the gangster rap industry.
Rather, his tales are told in the “still-life” moments of hustling, the day-to-day moments of living on the streets. In a recent interview with Pitchfork, Staples compares music to being “in the zoo, and the listeners are the people outside of the cage … you’re not going to step inside that glass, because you know what’ll happen to you. [But] Rappers are making this shit a petting zoo.” Whether that’s a verdict on the rap industry as a whole or Staples offering his thoughts on his song-writing process is up for interpretation.
A lack of glorification of gang culture is a defining aspect of Hell Can Wait. Staples’ constant themes about the Dickensian aspect of the street-life, from selling drugs to riding with his homies, solidifies his credo as one of the most genuine rappers today. In “Screen Door,” he explores his past living with his drug-dealing father and working-class mother, ranting, “Bobby Johnson ain’t my OG / this ain’t no movie, bro.” Laid over an unobtrusive beat and instrumental, Staples chants, “Who’s that peekin’ in my screen door” in between verses of his father’s evolution from drug-dealing to more criminal activities. In a previous mixtape, Staples meditates on his father’s crime, rapping, “Dad did time ‘cause he sold drugs for me / I could never judge a man trying to better off his fam.” Though weak on raw emotion, “Screen Door” is prototypical of the whole album, touching on everything from his mother’s teenage pregnancy, his father’s drug fiasco and his own burning passion for money and respect on the streets.
And, what’s a ghetto gospel going to be without mention of the police? In “Hands Up,” Staples’ ire against the police and school district comes alive, as he rants, “LAPD, they ain’t ‘bout shit.” His lyrics takes on a caustic quality. Criticizing the police’s use of excessive force, Staples’ lyrics are reminiscent of recent events in Ferguson and reference America’s failed war on crime. Echoing fellow artist Run the Jewels, Staples sardonically reflects, “Paying taxes for some fucking clowns to ride around.” According to Staples, Orwellian state oppression has held him down long enough and his lyrics burst with that tension.
Staples’ future is undoubtedly going to be full of success. Judging from his prolific nature in the past two years, fans probably won’t have to wait too long for another taste. Hell Can Wait is only a freshman EP and Staples is no doubt working on his next album, a prospect that both excites and terrifies this reviewer. Staples’ development over the years shows that his mentors have taught him many useful technical tricks that will prove critically important as he gains more attention in the hip hop community. He has already achieved much by signing on to Def Jam Records. Now all he needs to do is prove that he earned it, a definite struggle in the works.
Hip hop has always been a trinity between dance, rap and graffiti, the whole being greater than the sum of all three. It has also always been an identity of the oppressed, of the powerless. But as hip hop became more mainstream over the last decade, the community has been more and more marginalized.
One instance of this was Forbes magazine’s suggestion that the much-maligned rapper Iggy Azalea ‘ran hip hop,’ which drew much criticism of readers and forced the magazine to alter the title of the article. And, even though Forbes is a business magazine that has no relevance in music reporting, the response is symptomatic of a larger disconnect between the mainstream, deridingly-labeled “sell-outs” and their moderate hip hop fans, and the less-well-known underground rappers and their hardcore hip hop fans.
As Vince Staples walks across the tightrope of success, he must listen to both these groups and his instincts as an artist. There isn’t a Dummy’s Guide to Success as a Hip Hop Artist. He needs to stay relevant in an industry ruled by dance music. But he also needs to stay genuine and true to his art. Whatever he’s going to choose, only time will tell. But, as for right now, Hell Can Wait is a true hip hop album, a fine anthology of life on the streets by a man who lived on the streets.