I find the idea that we write alone laughable, even egotistical. Poetry is a palimpsest that has been endlessly rewritten—it’s a social space we share with others.
In the summer of 2015, I stumbled across “Blue Suede” from Vince Staples’s 2014 EP, Hell Can Wait. A few days after I heard it, Staples’s first full-length double album, Summertime ’06, was released. I listened to and watched the video for “Blue Suede” obsessively, seeing and hearing something for which I had no words, until I fell into conversation with Jace Clayton, for whom Staples’s work heralds “undifferentiated possibility,” as he wrote with characteristic precision for the New York Times Magazine. Staples’s music is future music; he is willing to make the necessary breaks.
I later discovered that Corey Smyth, whom I’ve known for many years, is Vince’s manager and had directed the “Blue Suede” video. This convergence made it clear that I had to meet and talk to this rapper whose music performs the pop-music trick of creating family-feeling (I know Vince; Vince is family), and, at the same time, pushes back against this unearned intimacy with constant reminders in the songs that this is his job (in “Norf Norf”: “Folks need Porsches / hoes need abortions / I just need y’all outta my business”). This illusion of being family—which is also not an illusion—is the connection between black people that hip-hop maintains, agitates, and brings out into the world, for sale.
Last summer, I was raking Vince’s songs trying to figure out what could help me write better about the marvelous paradox of hip-hop as a thing that is, like a black body, both universally available and discursively hostile. It spits us out while we think we are consuming it. I am inexplicably cheered, I feel joy, when the collective voice of hip-hop threatens me for looking at it crazy. Bitch, better have my money! I am that bitch. How to account for this ambiguous pleasure?
Vince and I spoke via Skype in late March. He was in the studio with Corey, recording music for a new EP titled Loco.
Simone White You driving, Vince?
Vince Staples I am.
SW So where are you guys right now?
VS On Sunset Boulevard.
Corey Smyth Leaving one studio session, going to another. We just left the Neptunes/Justin Timberlake session to go to the Vince Staples session, and then off to Dave Chappelle’s standup show.
SW Because you’re working with the Neptunes on something?
CS I manage Chad Hugo of the Neptunes. It was important for Vince to visit. Vince can grow from seeing how the Neptunes and Justin Timberlake work. You have to witness it firsthand to see what’s possible.
VS They got Skittles inside the studio, and they got nice beverages, so I just go over there and hang out.
SW (laughter) Oh, my God. Are you guys getting out of the car now?
VS Can you wait until we walk inside, in case we lose service?
SW Let’s do that. It’s so distracting. I’m looking at somebody’s chin.
CS Okay, we’re inside the studio.
SW Alright, Vince, nice to meet you again.
VS Got to love the Internet. Nice to see you again. First time was in San Francisco, I think.
SW You remember that? That’s pretty good. So, I hope we can talk poet to rapper about your process and your thoughts on being an artist in the world. As a pop star, your audience is enormous but you actually might be new to the audience that BOMB services.
VS We can talk about whatever.
SW Good. So your record Summertime ‘06 comes out in 2015, you’re about to turn twenty-two. By then Corey had been managing you for almost four years. I know Corey deals with very ambitious artists. Were you thinking about yourself as a professional artist all that time?
VS No, I was just hanging out. Corey was trying to keep me out of trouble and trying to figure it out for me. First, my friend Jay Curry was telling me I should try to just do music. Then it was Chuck Wun and Dijon SAMO. Then I met Syd tha Kyd through the Internet. Then it was Michael Uzowuru, Earl Sweatshirt, Mac Miller, and then Corey. There’s always been someone there who was pushing me. My entire career has been based on somebody telling me I could become something. Corey had the reach and the knowledge to pull me forward into what I wanted to do. I kind of figured it out after, around the time I did the Hell Can Wait EP, at the end of 2014.
SW Right. You’ve talked in the press about “Blue Suede” being a watershed moment for you, when things really came together. That song made me sit up and take notice. It wasn’t until about three months ago that I learned that Corey had directed the video, which is one of the most beautiful things I’ve seen in a long time. It’s very moving, the red and blue wash in that black-and-white video—meta-America, also meta-gangster. I love the way you make Elvis’s blue suede shoes disappear: “New shoes with the blue suede / Young graves get the bouquets / Hope I outlive them red roses…” And you dancing alone on top of your grandmother’s house—that’s a gripping and pretty wild image of freedom.
When you were doing “Blue Suede,” what happened? What made you think, This is my work, and I’m a cultural worker?
VS ”Blue Suede” was the first time I actually made a song I wanted to make. I had songs, you know, the label books the studio every day—you’ve got to go in there and do something. We had recorded about forty-something songs, and the label went, “Well, what do you want to put out?” And I was like, “None of them. I don’t like them. I don’t want to be rude, but the beats aren’t what I want them to be.” We were supposed to meet Boi-1da in Toronto and ended up meeting a guy named Hagler [Tyrant], who made “Screen Door” and some other beats we had. When I heard the one for “Blue Suede,” I was like, “Yeah, I’ve been looking for that for a long time.” The song was done; I just needed the beat.
SW It’s unimaginable to me that those lyrics could have been made without that beat being in place. As a poet, when I write something, I hear the sound of it. What made you think lyrics like “Never gon’ snitch, my mama raised soldiers / Show me that profit, cough them Range Rovers / Up” needed that sound, beginning with the screaming siren?
VS I just hear the beat, and either it fits something or it doesn’t. It’s basically me looking for something, but I don’t know what I’m looking for.
SW What happens when you find it?
VS Then we get a song. Sometimes I never find it. It’s alright. Life goes on. We just go to the juice place or something. And then get a sandwich.
SW So it’s almost like shopping, or a conversation that takes place between you and the producer?
VS There’s definitely a conversation because the likelihood of me picking a beat that someone plays cold for me is so slim to none, it’s crazy. I need to tell them what I want it to sound like. And I’m not going to do something twice. It has to be a conversation or else somebody would try to give me “Blue Suede” again, which has happened.
SW You’ve heard that again?
VS Yeah, I’ve heard people make their versions of the song. I know that before “Blue Suede,” those synths weren’t being used. I feel like people were slightly inspired by that sound. It’s not because I’m so fucking great, it’s just because someone might have been like, Oh this is like the snare rolls when trap music got hot. And then they’re everywhere. It’s not necessarily copying. It’s just that inspiration is drawn from time to time.
SW So what happened with “Señorita”? In “Señorita” there’s a conversation with Future’s “Covered N Money,” right? What’s the relationship of “Covered N Money” to what you were trying to do in your song?
VS I had never heard “Covered N Money” before. Christian Rich came with the beat all ready. I had verses for something else, and his beat kind of fit. It just had a better tempo, so I built around it. I had the verses with the idea for the video—everything else was interchangeable.
SW So in the “Señorita” video, you’re walking through a neighborhood and people are collapsing as you move through, apparently falling dead, as if from sniper fire. At the end of the video it’s become clear that you and the others you’re moving with are behind glass. All this violence is being observed as if you’re in a fish tank; the observers don’t do anything to stop it.
VS Yeah, the whole zoo concept.
SW Four years into the game, do you feel like you’re being observed in the same way?
VS Of course—it’s always going to be like that. Why would it change?
SW Well, you tell me. You seem to have a complicated understanding of your job as a rapper. You have a role to play, but you also have personal ideas about what you want to put out there as an artist.
VS I never wanted to be a rapper; I like to be quiet in my music. Actually, having this job, I don’t know… I know that certain music made me want to feel and do stuff on the wrong side of the fence, so my whole thing is being mindful of that reality and not pretending it’s not there.
That’s more of a responsibility where I’m from, you know? Life has a soundtrack. And certain music is a soundtrack to a certain type of identity or feeling. So what happens sometimes when you don’t pay attention to what you say and what you do, like 50 Cent, the Game, and those kinds of guys—they made us feel like our lives were worth nothing, basically.
SW Your life was worth nothing.
VS 50 Cent’s “Gunz Come Out,” the Game’s “Westside Story”—those were the songs that we had when we were kids…. It was either those or some Dem Franchize Boyz “Lean Wit It, Rock Wit It” shit. Nothing else. Or Lil Wayne on Tha Carter III: “We smoke that kush and we ball like swoosh.”
SW So that’s the soundtrack that you were listening to, and your obligation as an artist was to make something different from that?
VS Not even that—I didn’t want to say nothing I was going to look back on and be like, Yeah, I shouldn’t have said that, I probably fucked somebody’s life up.
They always tell the black people what we can and can’t say, but I don’t feel like I need to worry about that—I can say what I want. But you do need to have responsibility for what you say. When you make violent music and it comes off a certain way, it is going to make people do violent things. Kids will go buy a specific gun because they heard about it in a song. That’s a fact where I live: kids are getting unnecessarily sized ammunition cases, shells, magazines based on shit that they heard in a fucking Chief Keef song. Motherfuckers driving all the way to Arizona to get a clip they’re probably never going to shoot. And that’s all derivative of the music.
SW At the same time, you’re very clear about the fact that some of the stuff that happens in rap music is made up, right?
SW You’re clear that you are a person that is also a persona. You are Vince Staples, but then there’s also the rapper Vince Staples, and those beings are not necessarily the same.
VS I try my best to keep them the same. There are certain things I don’t like to share. I don’t showcase my family or my personal life, but as far as my music goes, I try to keep it as regular as possible. I’m not rich or famous or important, so I don’t try to pretend that I am.
SW What exactly do you mean by that? (laughter) Your audience is worldwide! Take it smaller than that, even just those who saw you at South by Southwest, for example—that’s a significant number of people. And your Internet presence seems really intense.
VS I walk down the street every day and people don’t notice me. It has a lot to do with how you carry yourself. I only have two-hundred and fifty thousand Twitter followers; other motherfuckers got like five million, you know what I mean? I’m not Drake or Jay Z or one of those people, so I’m not going to pretend I am. That’s the problem with rappers, we all have to be rich or famous or tough or some weird shit.
CS People are starting to notice you, though. It’s changing somewhat, but it’s not fucked up yet. It ain’t like walking down the street, Chappelle’s Show season two. After the “I’m Rick James, bitch” skit he couldn’t go nowhere. It was horrible. (laughter) I just hope it never gets to the point where it’s so intrusive that Vince can’t do regular shit.
VS I mean, I appreciate the regularity of my situation.
SW That’s a beautiful thing, but you’re also somebody who can say in the public eye things like “Everybody hates black people” and people listen to you.
VS Did I say that? Where?
SW You said that in a Rolling Stone interview in July 2015.
VS Everybody does hate black people, though.
SW I’m glad we’re talking about this because you seem to have a strong sense that black people are despised, but having become somebody who’s on the cusp of being quite famous, has your opinion about that changed at all?
VS Not really. If someone told me I can’t be a rapper no more, I’d be alright—not that big of a deal. I just be saying stupid shit to say it. But a lot of people don’t like black people. I feel them, I probably wouldn’t like me neither.
SW (laughter) Saying “Everybody hates black people” is not saying stupid shit at all.
VS But see, the fact of the matter is it’s not true, because everybody doesn’t hate black people. Corey doesn’t—
SW I don’t hate black people. You don’t hate black people. And also, the motherfuckers that buy your music have some weird relationship with their love of black people.
VS A lot of people have a fetish for blackness. They don’t really like black people.
Like nobody likes smoking crack. They just like being high. If they could get high another way, they wouldn’t smoke crack.
SW Black people and crack are the same? What are you trying to say?
VS They haven’t figured another way to be obsessed with a culture.
CS Listen, I don’t want this to be misguided and I’m not trying to chime in on this interview, but—
SW Totally chime in, I want to hear what you have to say.
CS The potency of blackness and the potency of crack is what we’re talking about! We legitimately have a billion-dollar art form when people are speaking. Do you understand what I’m saying? It’s crazy!
VS There’s no way around somebody black being black, and there’s no way around a crack rock being a mutherfucking crack rock.
CS No one speaks better than us. No one speaks like us. That’s why it works. We legitimately have coined talk that makes money.
SW Okay, yeah, but here’s the thing: “Blue Suede” is so beautiful and also so confusing because a lot of what you’re saying in the song is stuff that we’ve heard before, “Bitches ain’t shit but hoes,” that’s Snoop Dog, almost verbatim. Then there’s “Finna kill a nigga walkin’ to his mom’s tonight,” which might be a comment on Trayvon Martin’s murder or an actual threat. These things—black misogyny, dangerous masculinity—are sold to the public as blackness, right?
VS Where I come from, that is blackness. We ain’t got no African bookstore. You hear what I’m saying? And the line is, “Bitches ain’t shit but hoes I been known that.” Because we’ve been told that our whole lives. The point is: What else we gon’ do? I tried to figure that out when I was younger. I was like fifteen or sixteen, talking to my cousin, and he was like, “We gon’ do this.”
SW Which is what?
VS All the bad stuff. What else you gon’ do? I live in a Mexican suburb of Los Angeles County with no Bloods in it and a large number of Pacific Islander and Asian people. Black culture isn’t dominant; we’re outnumbered. There are more white people in Long Beach than anything else. But you walk outside, you’re going to see black people, Asians, Mexicans. Why is that? Because it’s a forceful presence. You’re going to notice the black kid outside skateboarding with the skinny jeans on and the red hair and the gun, because it doesn’t make any sense.
The song doesn’t make any sense because where I come from, things don’t make any sense. I don’t know why we don’t like the niggas around the corner, but if somebody say one of their names, I’m gonna say, “Fuck ‘em.” Why? Because I was told to say “Fuck ‘em.” Ain’t no way around it. You go to school, they tell you, “Martin Luther King was great, but he got shot dead. Malcolm X was great, but he got shot, too. Oh yeah, and y’all want to know about the slaves?” And that’s pretty much all you get. And then you go home, and there’s no greater power in this world than fear. Somebody’s scared of you, they’ll do whatever you want them to do. My mom used to always say, “I don’t want you to love me. I want you to be scared of me.” I feel her because, at the end of the day, if I wasn’t scared of my mom, I’d probably be a bit worse off.
Love doesn’t mean nothing. You go to school your whole life just to be told you ain’t shit but a slave or a dead nigger that got shot by somebody. And then what else you got? College is a culture thing; it’s a tradition to go to the same school your family went to or go to the army like your dad did, blah, blah. Where I come from, you could be from the same hood as your parents, and that’s pretty much as far as it goes. Also, I live in California. California is a different place.
SW Yeah, black people from California are different. I agree.
VS Black people from California is fucking displaced slaves. Do you know where the term “South-Central” comes from?
VS The niggers had to get off on Central, on the south side of the train, and that’s where they had to live. That’s why that area is called South-Central. So most black people from California is that.
SW Where’s your family from?
VS Haiti and Central America. None of my family lived here before my grandparents.
SW Can we talk about the live show? I was really surprised by its punk rock aspect. There’s no hype man. It’s just you and your DJ and some lights. And I’m curious about that unadorned way of presenting yourself. You don’t have a whole lot of fancy shit around you. Why is the live show so moody and stripped down?
VS I come off pretty deep, I guess, sometimes, but there’s just some stuff I don’t want. I don’t want a hype man because I don’t want to look at them jumping around looking fucking stupid. I’ve never had a chain or a watch or none of that shit in my life. I’d rather go to a punk-rock show than a rap show. I’ve never really been to a concert in my life unless my friends were performing. I went to see Diana Ross with my mom once, and I went to Kanye’s Yeezus.
SW So you don’t have this and you don’t have that. You have a car? Just curious.
VS Yeah. I like cars. My mom used to work at Toyota, so she used to take us to car shows. While she sat in a little booth, me and my friends would run around and try to steal stuff.
SW (laughter) What could you steal from a car show?
VS You’d be surprised. CD players were hot then. We stole one and Jay Electronica’s “Exhibit A” was on it, and I was like, Oh, that’s cool.
SW You’re saying you don’t really have a sense of the theatrics of a hip-hop show, but I know that you follow hip-hop culture carefully because you talk about it all the time in public.
VS I pay attention. I can’t tell you when anybody’s music came out or who’s featured on what, but if I hear a song twice, I probably will remember it for the rest of my life. I take what I like and don’t take what I don’t like—that’s as far as it tracks. I can’t really see my show being all bright and happy and shit. Based on what the music sounds like, it wouldn’t add up, you know?
SW Yeah, I understand. So no brightness and happiness. What kinds of feelings are important to you?
VS My mom is cool. I like my mom. If I’m not homeless, that’s cool. Couple of my homies, my family, a car. I don’t really need much else.
SW Can we talk a little bit about romance and women?
VS Oh, yeah.
SW (laughter) On Summertime ‘06 there’s a suite of romance songs in the middle of the first CD. There’s “Birds & Bees,” which talks about inheritance a little bit: “I’m a gangsta like my Daddy.” And then “Loca” and “Lemme Know” kind of come right in together. I love that you love your mama, but I’m curious about how you see the role that women can play in the world you’re describing to me. I love “Loca”; I think it’s one of the best songs on the record.
VS Everybody hates that song.
VS Because people hate women.
SW Want to say a little bit more about that?
VS People hate women. They demean them.
SW I agree with you one hundred percent. I’m waiting for you to say something else. “Norf Norf” starts with “Bitch you thirsty, please grab a Sprite.” Yes, people hate women, and also, you know, in the same way that rap music deals in a ready-made vision of black people for public consumption, hating women seems like a given thing in these songs. We are the butt of all jokes, regardless of whether the jokes are funny. Thirsty bitches, this is a demeaning stereotype, which of course you know.
VS Nine times out of ten, when I’m saying the word bitch, I’m not referring to a woman. I call dudes bitches when they are acting like bitches.
SW As a fan of hip-hop, you’re not going to hear me be the person to be like, “Nobody should ever say bitch in a song.” But I think bitch always refers back to the female.
VS I don’t like calling people names. If I’m going to be mad at you, I’m not going to call you a name, man, I would try to bring harm to your life. And I don’t like being mad no more, so I be trying to keep it positive.
SW So “Loca” and those other songs—I assumed that they were actually about your girlfriend or your lover. And they made me go, Oh, this person’s actually got something to say to someone specific about how they feel.
VS They’re all about the same girl. She wasn’t listening to my music, so that didn’t turn out too well.
SW What do you have to say about being a black man in America who has certain kinds of economic advantages, regardless of where you came from? Those advantages are going to stick to you in different ways, right? What kinds of relationships, not just with women but also with men, will make it possible to survive as the person you are now?
VS I don’t really think about that. I’m going to be dead by the time I figure out all that shit.
SW (laughter) How long do you plan to live?
VS I can live until I’m eighty. Eighty-year-olds are still trying to figure it out…. Albert died and Jenny moved out of state, and they just out here thugging by they self at the bus stop. They play bingo with a bunch of people they don’t know. We’re never really going to understand the relationship aspect of life.
SW I agree with you, I really do.
VS The most important thing you’ve got to think about is what you’re going to name your kids, because they’ve got to deal with that for the rest of their fucking lives. You don’t want to set them up for failure.
SW What are you going to name your kids?
VS One of these days I’ll figure it out, and I’ll let you know. Like, one of my friends who makes music… his son’s name is Rocket.
VS Suppose they’re like, “What’s your name?” You’d be like, “Rocket, you stupid motherfucker.” Now he has power over the white man because it’s like, “You didn’t know what a rocket was? And I’m the dumb nigger?”
SW Oh, Lord. Some final questions, Vince. Do you have a house?
VS I have a loft, whatever the fuck that means. But I’m trying to buy a house later, not right now. Because I don’t want to live in Los Angeles County or anywhere close to here.
SW Where do you want to live?
VS Far out, by the white people. I’m in the ghetto. It’s important to live by the white people. I’d rather live by the black people, to be one hundred percent honest, and with the Mexicans, but when you live by the white people, it’s like, You’ve got to fuck with me now, motherfucker. Because I make as much money as you do and our kids like each other. They might have sex one day, so there’s no way around us being friends. You’ve got to force the issues with the people.
My whole thing is I’m going to teach all white men who Gucci Mane is, you know what I mean? I’m trying to diversify the culture. There are too many people stuck in they little fucking box. I’m trying to move to Naples. Naples is like these islands in Long Beach that are like secluded and gated off—little three-million-dollar homes—if I ever get rich.
SW It seems like you’re well on your way to getting rich.
VS And if not, who cares? It’s just money, a piece of paper. Why would it mean something?
SW I guess the response to that question is: How has your life changed? You want me to ask you how much money you made this year?
VS A decent amount. I made a decent amount last year, too, and nothing really changed. Except I live farther. Everybody’s still sad. Everybody’s still dying.
SW You live farther away from the epicenter of pain. You seem really attuned to the fact that death is everywhere.
VS I’ve been around. I’ve been seeing a lot of people come, a lot of people go. A lot of people shot in the face. Can’t get away from it.
SW Is your music primarily about dying?
VS Probably. But I’m going to be here. I can’t go nowhere. I got too much shit I got to do.
SW Is there anything you want people to know about your music that you’ve never been asked before?
VS It would be fun if people listened to it. They don’t listen closely to anything anymore. When Kurt Cobain killed himself, it was a big deal. Amy Winehouse’s biggest song was about being an alcoholic and a dopehead, and people were surprised that she died from being an alcoholic and a dopehead. Tupac’s first two albums were about dying. Biggie’s first two albums were about dying. And people were surprised when they died. Nobody cares about the music or the people who make it.
Simone White is a poet, critic, mother, and program director at The Poetry Project. Her most recent collection of poems is Of Being Dispersed.
I find the idea that we write alone laughable, even egotistical. Poetry is a palimpsest that has been endlessly rewritten—it’s a social space we share with others.