I can't pretend to know Vince Staples' story. His life is not my life. His city's not my city. His skin's not my skin. After the first bars of the sweeping Summertime '06 opener "Lift Me Up" there are miles between us. "I'm just a n**** until I fill my pockets and then I'm Mr. N****, they follow me while shoppin'." That's something I've never experienced. I've also never found "another dead body in the alley," as the fever dream "Birds & Bees" tells us. My granddad wasn't in a gang. None of my friends have been murdered. I don't have any real animus toward the police, past a few tickets here and there. Despite our similar ages (22 for Staples, 24 for me) we seemingly couldn't be more different.
But I identify with Summertime '06. Each barb from Staples stings me in a way lines don't always do. I've had that hopeless, crushing feeling that blindsides Staples in the defiantly prideful, slow moving "C.N.B." Maybe you know the kind? Where you roll out of bed with pep in your step only to think this is pointless, there’s no promise in the outside world. You'd rather say "f*** it," than fight.
That misanthropy rings out with the pots and pans percussion of "Jump Off the Roof." Staples considers the title action to feel alive; to snap out of the drug-addled coma he's fallen into. On the second disc's metallic "Like It Is" Staples admits with deflation the streets are the only things worth loving. For all the danger he knows they promise he tries to connect with them just to have a tangible connection. Like the imagined suicide of "Jump Off the Roof," he's risking everything for the minimal return of feeling something.
Summertime '06 isn’t exactly the kind of album people rally around. Over the course of 59 minutes and two discs it features mounds of insular, world weary, desperate stuff. One of the lightest moments, "Summertime," still has Staples murmuring over a wheezing organ sound: "My feelings told me love is real, but feelings known to get you killed." To end, he begs "don't leave me alone in this cruel, cruel world." This is his debut LP and he's ending a disc on that note, a desperate send-off scrawled in the margins of scrap paper.
Why is this album worth listening to then if there's little to root for? In part because Staples is so committed to the material. He snarls "can a motherf***er breathe?" in the aforementioned "Lift Me Up," a stunning bit of unguarded confusion to rival Ab-Soul's in "Ronald Reagan Era." You can easily picture him doing the money dance during "Get Paid," his voice cocky and drawling out "paiiiiiiiddd." One of my favorites is first single "Señorita" where he goes into hyperdrive to match Future's Autotuned double-time. "F*** ya dead homies, run ya bread homie, got some lead for me, I'm on Artesia, parked in my Beamer bumping my own s***," he spits without taking a rest. When he returns to the delivery at the end of verse two, you're left dizzy and dazzled. Ditto to the way he pronounces "North" as "norf" and pauses to let the burbles of "Surf" float to the murky surface. Typically those are the thrilling moves of a vet who has figured out his or her strength, not an artist on their first full-length.
The production though does have a veteran’s name attached and it adeptly matches Staples' grim view. No I.D. made his name with the warm soul of Common's Resurrection but his work on Summertime '06 threatens to cast a long shadow over past boom bap. Run the Jewel's post-apocalyptic detritus is a clear influence, so too is the blackened spring of ScHoolboy Q's "Prescription/Oxymoron." Along with cloud rap innovator Clams Casino and trap deconstructionist DJ Dahi, I.D.’s created a work that's equal turns alluring and repulsive. The weird aquatic sirens at the beginning of "Norf Norf" send listeners running to the hills and "Loca" draws them back with emphatic handclaps and sensual "baby babies." "Might Be Wrong" best splits the difference. It starts with Haleef Talib's vocals floating above trickles of keyboard and heavy strings before swooping into a valley of bass moans. In exactly four minutes we hear the come up and the fall back down. We're taught "Hands up, don't shoot. Shot. Stand your ground. Blacks don't own no ground to stand on so we stand on our words." All without Staples saying anything.
Whenever Staples does speak, it's well worth listening to. Your ears perk up, even when he's staring straight at you saying "I done seen my homies die then went on rides to kill 'em back. So how you say you feel me when you never had to get through that?" Who the hell has been through that? Odds are 99% of the people listening will never know that deeply visceral and profound of pain. But there you are, nodding along to every missive like you know exactly what the hell he is talking about. Empathizing isn’t really as hard as it seems. Geography, life story and skin color be damned. Connections are always possible.