- Ryan ZumMallen
By now, hip-hop is well accustomed to West Coast rappers bursting onto the scene and demanding a permanent place at the table. From the early days of N.W.A. to the explosive rise of Kendrick Lamar, some of the most unique voices in rap have hailed from Southern California. With his new debut, Summertime ’06 (Def Jam), Vince Stapes may have added himself to that esteemed list and instantly placed among the most influential Long Beach rappers to ever grace the mic.
But perhaps the astonishing thing about Staples is not that he succeeded in his debut, but how he has done it. In light of recent violence through parts of Long Beach that have left several people dead and more injured, and in fact, fears that they may be spurred by promises of a summer long racially motivated campaign (refuted by local authorities from the beginning, for what it's worth), Staples offers a debut album that sheds light on how it feels to lose innocence in an atmosphere defined by danger, and the damaging aftereffects that cannot be shaken.
Staples hails not from the Eastside of Long Beach that Snoop Dogg and his cohorts — Nate Dogg and Warren G, as well as Daz Dillinger, Crooked I and others — made globally infamous during their height in the 1990s, but instead from North Long Beach, an area of the city that goes largely ignored even by longtime residents to the point of nearly being an afterthought. Summertime ’06 succeeds in introducing us to a Northside with history and personality; one could argue that Staples’ small pocket of the city is the true protagonist of the entire album, littered with references to local treasures like Louis Burgers and Ramona Park.
And while North Long Beach reveals itself to be the main character in Staples’ epic, it is far from being the hero. Summertime ’06 rides the
recent wave among rappers born into the War On Drugs and crack epidemic who paint their communities as warzones, traps, and pressure cookers with danger and despair lurking around every corner.
One of the first tracks on the album, “Norf Norf,” exhibits a series of racially conflicting themes that show the community contains too much of both to be labeled good or bad. It is neither, but as long as you’re in it, it's inescapable. Similarly, when he raps “Rounds up in that chamber/ I’m a gangster like my daddy” at the end of “Birds & Bees,” it is not with the overblown bravado that allowed America to put gangsta rap into a neat and tidy box for more than two decades, but a low resignation and reluctant — almost hereditary — acceptance.
Through Staples’ lens, we can begin to understand that the main ingredient in a violence-plagued neighborhood is often not greed, or bloodthirstiness, or nihilism — but fear. This is not an entirely new concept in hip-hop. The Geto Boys largely pioneered painting hyper-realistic imagery as a shock to the system, and more recently, Lamar utilized a rushed, unsettling tone that noticeably caused his voice to break several times in one of the most jarring tracks on his acclaimed 2012 album, “Good Kid, m.A.A.d. City.”
Staples takes these ideas and runs with them, stringing together twenty songs with a brilliant soundtrack, sinister and ominous, provided by all-star producers No I.D., DJ Dahi and Clams Casino, and laces them with an unrelenting barrage of breathless lyrics about growing up in a powder keg. He may be from the same city, but the undertone of cynicism from Staples may as well be a world away from the entrancing pride and charisma of Snoop Dogg. By contrast, Staples regularly pleads for relief (“See this weight is on my shoulders / Pray Jehovah lift me up”) and in the chorus of one song, suggests that jumping off of his roof might at least make him feel alive for a moment.
When he continues to repeat one of the album’s most loaded lines — “They found another dead body in the alley / They found another dead body in the alleyway” — with fading, deadpan delivery, it displays an alarming numbness to death and violence, and especially smacks of relevance after former Millikan High track star Alicia Todd was found murdered in a Long Beach alley just days before the release of Summertime ’06. Staples addresses violence in his music not to glamorize or fetishize it, but to display the callousness and insecurity it creates when treated by so many as a given. “When the smoke clears why was the war fought? / ‘Bout time you abandon the folklore,” he raps on "Surf."
Ultimately, perhaps the moral is that there is no Biggie to his 2Pac, no Eazy to his Dre; in Vince Staples’ Long Beach, there is only the clear and ever-present possibility of harm every time you leave the house or turn a corner, whether it be from a girlfriend, a random tweaker on the street, any one of several different gangs or from the oft-ridiculed police, and a resulting undercurrent of fear that breeds paranoia, and begins to present itself outwardly as hostility and aggression in young men. Often, as throughout the tracks “C.N.B.” and “Street Punk,” it seems as though Staples is actively talking himself into feeling brave and fearsome. This is not the life that Staples would prefer to lead; it’s the one he employs to survive his surroundings.
In eschewing current trends in both hip-hop production and lyricism, and instead focusing on a visceral, high quality aesthetic, Staples has ensured that Summertime ’06 will enjoy a lasting shelf-life among the annals of great debuts in hip-hop history. But to Long Beach, he has delivered a magnum opus on the experience of navigating a neighborhood ignored and even openly neglected by the establishment. Staples simultaneously and expertly juggles issues with identity, race, class, justice, greed, love, loyalty, hope and more; it seeks less to provide answers than to show how uncertainty and lack of opportunity permeate every aspect of a young life. It also provides clues to how a life of disadvantage can lead to tragedy.
“Why they hate us? Why they want to rape us for our culture? / They greet, defeat us, bleed us, then they leave us for the vultures / They break the brilliant off with millions, trying to break their focus / More tan the man, the more alone and hopeless,” he raps on C.N.B. On another song he wonders whether he should listen to his teachers, who
tell him stories of slaves, or his mother, who tells him stories of kings. Staples seeks answers, but these are momentary distractions. He maintains a wary distance with hope.
These are experiences that I, and I suspect, many of the people making the decisions that shape communities like Staples’ North Long Beach, simply cannot relate to and therefore, judge. However, seeing the problem from his perspective — problems taken from his experiences nearly a decade ago, still very much real and hardly any better addressed today — can help us to understand and sympathize, and perhaps act more appropriately moving forward. The plague of gangs is one problem, but Staples shows that a prevailing sense of dread, cultivated since childhood and combined with the inevitability that you and your friends will likely end up dead or in jail, is a problem all its own.
Pressure creates diamonds. Staples didn’t set out to shine, but his debut album nevertheless is a beacon to many who will not soon forget it. As a community, we should aspire to see that the children of Long Beach no longer grow up with the same experiences.