Vince Staples: “It’s important for me to tell the truth about my experiences”

How the brutally honest North Long Beach rapper became a big fish in every creative sphere that takes his fancy, from TV and comics to his impeccable self-titled album

Vince Staples has a certain je ne sais quois that rap fans love. Whether you like him for his hilarious interviews, his authentic depiction of a California more than familiar to its residents, or simply his refreshing approach to rapping, many consider him quite the documentarian of his generation. Happily repping Long Beach, which also birthed iconic rap unc’ Snoop Dogg, the 28-year-old has been delivering tongue-twisters to his cult fanbase, starting his career over a decade ago with languid 2011 mixtape ‘Shyne Coldchain Vol. 1’.

His recent fourth studio album ‘Vince Staples’ finds him showing off his expert rapping skills over beautifully retro hip-hop beats made by his friend and superstar producer Kenny Beats. Vince’s last record, 2018’s ‘FM!’, was a sunny affair, but this one returns to the gloomier, moodier style of 2015’s ‘Summertime ’06’, which featured the brooding hit ‘Norf Norf’ and its unforgettable refrain: “I ain’t never ran from nothin’ but the police.”

At times, as when the latest record documents observations on his home, Vince seems intent on warning youngsters wanting to get into the street life, but he tells NME that this was unintentional: “No. My intention is just to tell my story. I don’t really try to tell anyone what to do, or how to receive what I say or what I do. I think it’s important for me to tell the truth about my experiences. I have the purest intentions when it comes to making music and what I think that way people can take away from it. I just say what I feel and then I go from there.”

NME Cover 2021 Vince Staples
Credit: Tyree Harris

The rapper, who grew up in the working-class North Long Beach area, may have cultivated a reputation as something of a hip-hop funnyman – just check out some of his other interviews on YouTube – but today we catch him in a more reflective, serious mood, though he’s polite and articulate throughout our hour-long chat. He’s a little late to the call, but explains that he was “just tired” as it was the 4th of July weekend. We all need a well-earned break sometimes.

And no wonder; it’s been a long road. The chart-bothering Vince has always been praised for his authenticity when it comes to talking about his background, and in 2015 he took Complex on a tour of his old neighbourhood, emphasising the credibility of his underdog story. Posed with the suggestion that rap fans seems to respect artists the most when they’re accurately evoking humble, gritty beginnings, he offers an interesting rebuttal: “We can say that but Tyler, The Creator sold 150,000 [copies of new album ‘Call Me If You Get Lost’] his first week.

J. Cole, Cordae; they’re really big in rap. The biggest rappers of the last decade – Drake, Kendrick Lamar – are really big in rap and they all seem to be in the middle and not out here doing these things. It just depends on how you’re trying to look at things because not even the biggest rapper in the past decade, Jay-Z – who’s had one of the most impressive rises that we’ve ever seen in music – is trying to be the toughest guy in the room.”

NME Cover 2021 Vince Staples
Vince Staples on the cover of NME. Photography by Zamar Velez

Vince is keen to remind us that, at the end of the day, rap is an art form first and foremost. “What is rap cap? There’s no other genre where we expect people to not be entertainers. That’s something specific to rap. We don’t look at people in other genres and expect them to actually be [what they say]. We don’t look at death metal groups and expect them to be selling their soul. We don’t look at punk rock and think they’re really crazy. I’ve never understood why that’s, like, the thing. Why can’t they just be songs? Because for other genres, they’re just songs.”

With his impeccable self-titled album, described as “spectacular” in a four-star NME review, Vince Staples wanted to demonstrate his personal growth. “It’s very reflective of me,” he says. “It’s very descriptive; it kind of explains who I am and where I am in my thought process. It’s very detail-oriented. I think it’s very personal and, I guess, more mature. It’s different from how the music sounded when I was a teenager, which is a good thing. Growth is a good thing.”

When he first emerged in 2011, Vince was only 18, delivering his bars with the deadpan nonchalance that would come to set him apart. Many fans were introduced to him via ‘Hive’, the bassy 2013 track he produced with Earl Sweatshirt, then best known as part of Odd Future, the defiant California-based music collective headed up by Tyler, The Creator. Vince wasn’t a part of Odd Future, but was heavily affiliated with them.

“When I met Odd Future, they were hungry and had a passion for music”

“It’s a really big misconception [that I was in Odd Future],” he explains. “I was friends with Earl a few months before he left [to go to a boarding school in Samoa]. I didn’t really have a relationship with anyone else until years, years, years later. But I am appreciative of the lessons that I’ve learned from them.”

Odd Future ran amok from 2007 to 2015, tearing up the rap rulebook with wildly transgressive lyrics, an Adult Swim comedy show named Loiter Squad and their own clothing line; the likes of Tyler and alt. hip-hop icon Syd went on to define rap in the mid-to-late 2010s. Of the group’s rise, Vince says: “I wasn’t a part of it but I was there for a lot of it. And it was an amazing thing to see them map that out and create their own world. And I definitely used a lot of that knowledge I received from them when I had to do my own thing.”

He explains that his vision was a little less defined than Odd Future’s at the time: “I think I’m even more shocked that I ended up being able to have something because that was not my goal. When I met them, they were just hungry and had a passion for music.

“Honestly, just to be able to be considered peers with people who work that hard and stand on what they believe in creatively… It was hard to do because as [they were] teenagers, the world looked at them in a weird light — not weird, but just not like they were traditionally what we see as musicians or young rappers. I think that they did a great job. And I’m just happy to have been able to see some of it.”

NME Cover 2021 Vince Staples
Credit: Tyree Harris

Vince was born to humble beginnings in 1993, and growing up didn’t spend much time listening to rap, watching TV, or evening using the internet. So it’s perhaps a surprise that he eventually became a BET-nominated rapper who wilfully hovers on the periphery of the mainstream and whose third mixtape, 2013’s ‘Stolen Youth’, was executive-produced by Larry Fisher, aka late legendary rap innovator Mac Miller, a true modern great. What was it like to work with superstars like Mac Miller so early on in his career?

“My appreciation for Mac goes past that project, even,” Vince says. “He showed me a lot, showed me a lot of life and took me on tour. Him and Earl were very instrumental in that point in my life, and helped me redirect my path towards where it kind of is now. So I’m forever grateful to them. It was a great experience. A great opportunity. I’m just happy I was able to know he was such a genuine, polite, and just caring person. It definitely, definitely was a privilege to know him.”

Miller, who tragically died from an accidental overdose in 2018, is one of a few inspirations for a new movie set to star – weirdly enough – rapper Machine Gun Kelly. It was to be titled ‘Good News’, a nod to Miller’s first posthumous single from last year, though the name was changed when the late rapper’s brother criticised this as disrespectful. “[The film is] not something that has been approved by his family,” says Vince, “and I won’t be supporting anything they don’t support.” When NME posits that the movie, whose new title is yet to be announced, has been portrayed in the press as something of a violation of Miller’s memory, Staples stands firm: “It is a violation”.

“There’s no other genre where we expect people to not be entertainers. That’s specific to rap”

There’s never been a shortage of hugely in-demand stars lining up to work with Vince, whose game-changing 2017 album ‘Big Fish Theory’ (which received the full five-star treatment from NME) attracted artists as varied as Damon Albarn, Kendrick Lamar, Justin Vernon and the late producer SOPHIE, all of whom helped him craft an avant-garde sound that went against the grain of contemporary mainstream rap.

Of his new record’s executive producer Kenny Beats – who has worked with everyone from Rico Nasty to IDLES – he has nothing but positive things to say: “I just think what we came up with is unique… I think the way that Kenny produces is very unique, at least from my vantage point. He’s very intentional – like, he’ll take conversations that you have, and take things you say – the smallest things – and he treats them all equally. He utilises those things to help take the direction [of the project].”

Beats also provide the majority of the production on the vibrant ‘FM!’, which amped up Vince’s commercial appeal. Why does Vince keep working with Kenny? “He’s one of my good friends, so it’s always good to work with people who you have an understanding and a relationship with. It furthers the creative process if they understand you and know a little bit about you and you guys have a deeper relationship. They can kind of pull from your life or pull from other things you know, and they pay more attention when it comes to creating.”

NME Cover 2021 Vince Staples
Credit: Zamar Velez

Perhaps unsurprisingly, considering he didn’t grow up devouring rap like many of his peers, Vince has begun to venture into other mediums as he becomes his true polymath self. His most recent projects away from the mic include The Vince Staples Show, formerly a web series and soon to hit Netflix, as well as his recently announced graphic novel Limbo Beach, which the artist has previously described as being about “lost children fighting to regain their stolen youth”.

True to form, Vince says he also “never read comic books” as a kid, but when the opportunity came along, he just couldn’t resist working up an idea from scratch with the New York-based company Z2 Comics, who have also produced works with the likes of Machine Gun Kelly and Yungblud. “It’s just an idea I had about the development of children and how [childlikeness] is lost in maturity,” Vince explains. “It’s like a hive mindset we might have had as kids and I wanted to try and expand on that experience in a unique way. I want to make sure that people can take something away from whatever I’m doing so that they can feel good about themselves, or uplifted.”

“I’m happy I was able to know Mac Miller. He was such a genuine, polite and caring person”

He’s equally excited about the scripted dramedy Vince Staples Show, which began life as a series of videos for three 2019 singles, reflecting their song’s lyrics and linked together with a continuous narrative. For Vince Staples, it all comes down to freedom of expression, regardless of the medium: “A lot of people don’t get to this position so I just want to make the most of it.”

On top of all this, there’s another album in the works, the hugely anticipated ‘Ramona Parks Broke My Heart’. Vince is staying pretty tight-lipped about the record – and its release date – as he’s still very much in the process of making it, but does let slip that “it’s going to be a thing of its own”, adding: “We’re working with some new people, trying to make a unique sound, and I’m really happy about it. It could really go one way or another at this point.”

Staples will go as far to explain that he always has “five-year plans” that are “planned out at all times”, but – in an entertaining sass – shoots down our request for specifics, insisting that he’ll “never reveal” the full extent of what he has lined up. Yet he does say that he believes he’s accomplished most of his ambitions to date, which ultimately come down to a desire to connect with people: “At the end of the day, this is a human interaction. Music is more about the people listening than it’s about you.”

NME Cover 2021 Vince Staples
Credit: Tyree Harris

He’s a favourite in his neighbourhood as well as the world, and rap fans have a cult-like love for Vince Staples; no matter how big he gets, he’s always the kid from North Long Beach. Vince notes that “of course ‘Norf Norf’ just went Platinum, and that makes my family, my mom, and the people I was raised with very happy,” but insists his goals and achievements can’t be defined by shiny plaques.

“I feel like everyone wants to be heard by the most people possible,” he says. “Everyone wants to touch the world as much as they possibly can. But I appreciate whenever I have, you know? I’ve been able to change my life and take my family out of a very bad situation. So if I’m able to do that, everything else is just a plus. I’m very content and very happy with whatever I get from music and life, no matter what it is…You gotta appreciate all successes.”

‘Vince Staples’ is out now via Blacksmith Recordings / Motown Records / EMI Records