From Tupac Shakur to Lil B, rappers have long embraced the make-it-and-move narrative. “I made a little money, then I moved my mama / Yeah straight out the hood,” Rich Homie Quan says in “Water.” In “The Watcher,” Dr. Dre raps, “I moved out the hood for good, you blame me?” And Ice Cube’s “Once Upon a Time in the Projects” is a whole cautionary tale about hanging around the hood.
Don’t expect any such songs from Vince Staples. “That’s the most ignorant thing,” he says. “To me, that translates to ‘If we want to do better, we have to get away from black people.’ It’s impossible to feel good about doing bad if you have a strong connection to the people in your community.” The 23-year-old is so proud of his native North Long Beach, California that he dedicated a song to thrills not found in any travel guide. On “Norf Norf,” from his 2015 Def Jam debut, Summertime ’06, he offers a new slogan for the LBC: “We Crippin’, Long Beach City, pay a visit.” What’s more, he still resides there.
Staples has just stepped out of Hamilton Middle School in North Long Beach, where he dropped in on the kids at the Youth Institute, a new YMCA initiative he helped establish. A few blocks away sits Ramona Park, a landmark he name-checks in the sleepy, ominous “Ramona Park Legend, Pt. 2.” The struggle crystallized in that song—“It’s so hard, trying not to go so hard”—is precisely why he donated to the program, which gives kids the opportunity to learn filmmaking and music production instead of gangbanging.
It’s impossible to feel good about doing bad if you have a strong connection to the people in your community.
The latter is what Staples studied. Growing up, he attended Christian schools and excelled at every sport he tried, but his father was affiliated. The elder Staples made him promise he’d never touch the stuff he watched his pop chopping up (to this day, Staples doesn’t drink or do drugs), but the pull of the streets and the appeal of the family business were strong. His 2014 song “Nate” begins, “As a kid all I wanted was to kill a man / Be like my daddy’s friends, hoppin’ out that minivan.” Eventually he became a 2N Crip. Although the most detailed accounting you’ll get of that time is in his songs, Staples allows that “backlash is still there, probably. But I’m not worried about it; it’s part of life.”
Rapping happened almost by accident. Friendly with members of the sprawling L.A. collective Odd Future, he crashed at producer Syd tha Kyd’s studio one night in 2010, after his mom had kicked him out, and recorded a verse on Earl Sweatshirt’s song “epaR.” In the fall of 2014, his debut EP, Hell Can Wait, a collection of bleak hood tales told by a realist in the cold light of dawn, received critical raves. By Summertime ’06, he’d earned the respect of everybody from dudes kicking it on the corner to The New York Times. His new EP, Prima Donna, should secure his place as one of rap’s best lyricists. Still, he shrugs off the idea of fame, insisting he’s “regular” and leaving that hustle to, say, Kanye.
“I’m someone who has lived that full life, so I know for a fact it is not promised,” he says. “I also treat it like it doesn’t matter, because life is so much bigger than us as people. I’m not the important part. There are so many issues in the world—we don’t just need to pay attention to the children, we don’t just need to pay attention to police brutality—people should focus on whatever they want to fix. They should do their best to put their passion into action, because if it really matters, you won’t let it fail.”
And if rap fails for him?
“I’d be all right,” he says, the wind off the ocean blurring his words a little. “I’d get to stay home more.”