Concert preview: Vince Staples brings inner-city realities to light on Hell Can Wait

Staff Writer
Columbus Alive

The video for Vince Staples’ “Blue Suede,” a claustrophobic cut spiked with smears of horror-film synthesizer, essentially traces a day in the life of the Long Beach, California-born rapper, following him from the start of his morning routine through a late-afternoon get-together with friends.

While the action is limited, the muted colors and tight-cropped camera work lend the scene a menacing air, suggesting the good times could’ve just as easily taken a far darker turn — a feeling, Staples said, he grew accustomed to dealing with as a youngster.

“Imagine going outside every day looking at both sides of the street and wondering if you’re going to need to have a weapon of some sort,” said Staples, 21, who joins Earl Sweatshirt and others for a concert at Park Street Saloon on Thursday, April 2. “Nine times out of 10 nothing is going to happen, but you don’t want to get caught that one day something does. And you live with that paranoia.”

Hell Can Wait, from 2014, captures this uneasy sensation, with Staples detailing scenes of police corruption, gang violence and economic futility. “Niggas from my home ain’t enrolled in colleges,” he snaps on “65 Hunnid.” “Fuck a class/ Junkies hitting glass.”

“The music shouldn’t be looked at as fun,” the MC said. “Parents of children in these suburban neighborhoods might look at it as, ‘This music is a bad influence on my children’ or ‘It’s somehow hindering my children.’ But, in a sense, I feel it’s an uncomfortable situation to live in, and it shouldn’t be fun for these kids to listen [to my music].”

Rather than glorifying the gangster lifestyle, Staples focuses the camera documentary-like on the people and neighborhoods that tend to exist as an afterthought to outsiders. It’s not always a flattering picture, either. Witness “Nate,” an autobiographical song about his drug-dealer father cut through with harrowing images of abandonment, spousal abuse and addiction.

“Smoking in the crib, hiding dip inside of soda cans,” Staples rhymes atop a surprisingly buoyant, soul-inflected beat. “Black bandana on his arm, needle in his hand.”

“I probably haven’t talked to my dad since ‘Nate’ came out [in early 2014],” said the rapper, who was raised largely by his mother, an intimidating figure who has maintained the ability to instill the fear of God in her children (“She loves us to death, but she’s no one to fuck with,” Staples noted). “People have a purpose in life, and my dad’s purpose was never to take care of me. That was my mom’s purpose. My dad’s purpose was to be an example, and to show me what the road I had chosen to go down could do to me. From him I learned who I was, and what I could have been.”

In discussing his relationship with his father, Staples flashed the same even tone and matter-of-fact approach he frequently adopts in his music. He repeatedly stressed he harbors no bitterness toward the man — “I always felt like he was around, and I understand that probably isn’t correct, but I never felt like I didn’t have him when I needed him,” he said — and noted his father’s failings were exacerbated by a political and social system where inner-city residents are frequently relegated to second-class status.

“On a bigger tip, I want the world to know what we went through. I understand now we’re the victim instead of the aggressor. We’re the victim of a system,” he said. “I used to think, ‘Fuck it. No one cares about us.’ Then you go to other states and other countries and see the same shit is happening there … and you learn no one cares about anybody.”

Rather than allowing this realization to harden into bitterness, however, Staples adopted a more empathetic mindset, focusing his attentions on outward-looking songs like the police brutality anthem “Hands Up,” which was written and recorded nearly a year before the phrase became a rallying cry for protesters mourning the shooting death of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown at the hands of Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson.

“I find more things I see myself caring about, and that seem important to me,” Staples said. “Years ago, if it didn’t happen with me or my friends, I didn’t care about it. I didn’t care about kids dying. I didn’t care about drug usage. Now it means something to me [because] you see the way it takes the life out of your family and friends and everyone around you. As you get older and go through life, a lot of things change, and it changes your priorities.”

It’s a shift further influenced by Staples’ recent successes, which have allowed him to tour more extensively, journeying far from the streets that shaped his earliest worldviews.

“Being on the road … just broadens your mind,” Staples said. “You think the world is so small until you go other places. Then you get out of the city and then the state and then the country, and things just change.

“I look at my environment now and I no longer feel trapped.”

Photo courtesy of Vince Staples

Park Street Saloon

8 p.m. Thursday, April 2

525 N. Park St., Arena District

ALSO PLAYING: Earl Sweatshirt, Remy Banks, Hashu