Saturday, July 4, 2015

album review: 'summertime '06' by vince staples

So I've gotten a few requests to cover The XXL Freshman list for 2015 over the past few weeks, and I have even less of a reason to do it than most years. I mean, seriously, Mick Jenkins drops The Water[s] and you instead find room for Kidd Kidd? At this point, if we needed any more evidence that XXL is struggling for relevance in the Internet age, it's here, and at this point it's just sad.

There is one choice they made correctly, though, and it's the one that everyone and their mother expected they would: Vince Staples. California MC, most famous for his collaborations with Odd Future especially Earl Sweatshirt, and hot off of a great 2014 where nearly all of his verses stood out on their respective albums, especially on Common's record Nobody's Smiling. It helped that Vince Staples had a way with bluntly effective lyricism that didn't shy away from tough truths, most of which reflected his time as a crip, which fit the tone in a year where rap music was forced to confront some harsh political realities. Coupled with the fact he worked with great producers like No ID and Evidence, there was a lot of hype behind him when he dropped the damn solid EP Hell Can Wait last year. As such, I was definitely curious to see where his debut album Summertime '06 would fall, especially considering it was a double album that still ran under an hour and was executive produced by No ID - how did it go?

This is one of those albums that feels like it should be so much better than it is. I've been listening through this record time and time again and believe me, there's a lot to like about Vince Staples' debut that proves that he really could be a great artist down the road... but as a whole, this album feels scattershot, several great ideas buried amidst a slew of underwhelming filler and half-baked songs that feel less bad than incomplete. If you go digging, you definitely can extract a certain amount of raw punch to it, but considering so much of Vince Staples' appeal is his straightforward, blunt honesty, it's a little worrying how much of it feels buried in gangsta cliches and unfocused ideas. That's not saying the album isn't good - it definitely is - but I do wish it was better.

So the best place to start would be Vince Staples himself... and look, as an MC, I mostly like the guy. Even though his personality can feel a little restrained and his voice lacking an immediately distinctive flavour or charisma at points, he's got versatility as a rapper in terms of his flows and dramatic range. Yeah, there are flubbed or forced rhymes - a fair number more than I was expecting, really - and there are tracks, particularly on the back half of this album, where it feels like he's playing things a little too basic, but for the most part, he's often all too convincing as the hardened, technically strong street rapper with a conscious edge that he needs to make this album work. Of course, this record immediately splits into tangents, so beyond songs of gang-banging, we also get tracks about selling drugs and girls, the latter of which pulls this album on its most notable tangent across the front half of the album, where he feels his life careening out of control and uses her love as a stabilizing force - one of the only ones he's got. That girl is played by a few different guests - with calm intensity from Jhene Aiko, raw passion from Snoh Aalegra, and hushed whispers from Kilo Kush - and they all fit well with the impressively bleak atmosphere of this record. The other guest stars, though, don't tend to fair so well - the majority of this project is Vince's affair alone, with the only guest rap verse coming from A$ton Matthews, who brought personality but not exactly a lot of skill. And as for the hooks... well, I'm not sure if it's the heavy use of buzzing autotune reminiscent of the final tracks on Kanye's My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, but I find myself not nearly as drawn to them as I'd like to be, with the big exception being on 'Might Be Wrong' with James Fauntleroy and the Cocaine 80s, which also featured a spoken word digression from Haneef Talib that hit home pretty powerfully. Hell, I didn't even mind the Future hook on 'Senorita', although that might have been because I could barely figure out it was him until I checked the credits.

Now a large part of this ties back to the production, and just like Vince Staples' friend Earl Sweatshirt, this album starts dark and stays there, ditching the dense, often suffocating atmosphere of Earl's most recent album for something much more empty, the mix filled up with textured bass kicks and beats and very sparse, often faded melodic progressions. On the one hand, that can work well for cultivating impressive atmosphere - the faded synths on 'Lift Me Up', the gospel-esque vocals against the rattle on 'Jump Off The Roof', the eerie trap beat on 'Senorita' that has a great evolution as the track mutates with gothic swell, the waves of synth and tinkling percussion of 'Might Be Wrong', or even the pummeling bass on 'Street Punks'. No I.D. handled the majority of the production on this album, and his commitment to organic depth really does show, especially his introduction of that killer guitar and synth progression on '3230' that had this snarled, lo-fi depth I really dug, or on the washed out desperate hope of 'Summertime' that hit me surprisingly hard. -It almost made up for how slightly overmixed the song 'Like It Is' feels, especially with the synths running over Vince's spoken word pieces. But really, most of this album sticks with bass-heavy tracks with only fragments of a melody often captured in the vocals... and this starts to become a problem as these songs start to run together. Sure, the production is good, but especially on the back half of this album, it feels like songs are lacking a distinctive instrumental identity to make them stand out from the rest of the punishingly bleak atmosphere, or at least add more dimension to it. Coupled with the feeling of emptiness in the production and the reliance on some extended outros, it oddly feels like this is an album stretching for ideas.

And the odd thing is that lyrically, this record is overflowing with the conceptual framework to hit way more effectively than it does, and part of this is an issue with track sequencing. This album is structured into two 'disks', and frankly, the second disk doesn't nearly have the same punch as the first. Part of this comes down to Vince doing a great job setting the scene, where gang-banging is the only life he knows and he's searching for his way out, but also knows the best way to do it is play off of a life story that others will not understand at best and glorify at worst. And the fact that it's a fragment of love, a girl who'll look past what he does and stay with him all the way, is what gives the careening danger of the first half of the album some dangerous punch and real human stakes. The second disk gets more political and moments like 'Might Be Wrong' and 'Like It Is' have excellently articulated social messages I really liked, contributing to many of the same themes of depression and lack of escape that drove To Pimp A Butterfly by Kendrick Lamar - sure, they want to get out but when you have a system that cuts down black men with no repercussions and rewards them for killing each other by romanticizing the gangsta lifestyle, it's hard to see that exit. That's one of the reasons 'Surf' stands out to me as such a potent track - sure, Vince Staples takes shots at both wannabe gangstas and girls who get screwed up on drugs and do everything they can, including get abortions, to get some measure of fame... but then the hook comes in almost as a response, showing they're just following the example that hip-hop set for them, what more can he ask them for? That's a potent, powerful theme I really dug...

And only if this record had the focus to dig deeper. See, for as much as I loved the social narrative and Vince's arc finding love in a hopeless place and finding personal responsibility without the need for larger society's brand of respectability, it's a scattered narrative. There's so much more Vince could have unpacked in these lyrics and these songs to carry both that personal and social punch... and instead we get filler track after filler track of gang-banging violence and slinging drugs. And believe it or not, I wouldn't exactly have a problem with them except for three main reasons. One, it often feels like Vince starts repeating himself, especially on the second disk. Two, the sequencing of the songs often feels like a potent social message is undercut - which might have been the overarching point, but doesn't help. And finally, the individual songs aren't entirely that interesting. I liked the bloody '3230' and the dramatic juxtapositions of 'Lift Me Up', but beyond that it doesn't have that element of storytelling or sharply descriptive imagery or even great wordplay to really grip me. They come across like filler to pad out a 20-song double album, when this could have been slashed and reordered to a brisk thirteen.

But in the end, I do like Summertime 06 by Vince Staples, but not as much as I wanted to. It's a promising hip-hop debut, probably one of the most promising of this year, and I'd certainly prefer Vince's more insightful thoughts than the basic-beyond-words gangsta rap of YG when it comes to West Coast MCs... but I dunno, I was expecting a little more from this, and I do wish this record had cut the wheat from the chaff. For me, it's a light 7/10 and definitely a recommendation, but a qualified one - Vince has come harder in the past both on EPs and guest verses, but I get the feeling he's got more to show us. Definitely worth a listen, but I want to hear more.

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