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Vince Staples, fresh off a morning flight from New York and sitting opposite me in the lobby of a west London hotel, is doing a good impression of a young man suffering from some kind of post-traumatic stress disorder.
He rocks back and forwards as he speaks, hunched on his chair, talking quickly. Meanwhile the soothing tones of Simon & Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water” play on the lobby stereo in the background. The style could not be further removed from Staples’ music, but it is an oddly serendipitous accompaniment. Troubled waters turn out to be the rapper’s main topic of conversation.
Staples, 22, has just released his first studio album, Summertime ’06. It draws on his upbringing in Long Beach, California. The son of a drug-dealing gang member and formerly a member of a gang himself, Staples brings to life a world of blood feuds and gun violence, at once nightmarish and normal. It is a highly accomplished debut, a filial riposte to the gangsta rappers who ruled West Coast rap in the early 1990s when Staples was born.
The album comes with heavyweight backing. Released by major label Def Jam, it was overseen by leading hip-hop beatmaker, the producer Dion “No ID” Wilson. And it has received rave reviews, comparable to the acclaim heaped on fellow Californian Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly earlier this year. Yet Staples professes to be unmotivated by stardom or money. “I’m grateful whatever. If I can sell 10 albums then I’m glad I can help 10 people or have 10 people listen to me. It’s not really my focus,” he says.
Asked what his focus is, he replies instantly: “Trying to be understood. Trying to provide a unique perspective on where I come from.”
Summertime ’06 is named after a particularly bloody season in Long Beach when Staples turned 13. Sing-song refrains resembling playground chants tell of dead bodies in alleys. Grimy textures evoke Long Beach’s industrial landscape of oil refineries and port traffic. It is not so much a coming-of-age story as the documentation of a ruined childhood. (In 2013 Staples released a mixtape of songs called Stolen Youth.)
“It’s a very hard environment to grow up in. It starts at a very young age,” he says, rocking in his chair, brown eyes fixing mine intently. “You have to establish certain things within yourself to survive. As a child you don’t know what’s right or wrong, you don’t know how to help yourself. That’s why we have certain people that are just kind of lost.”
The classic gangsta rapper from the 1990s was as likely to talk about feelings as confess to a liking for ballet. In contrast, Staples describes his music as “capturing an emotion” and trying to “touch or sway” listeners.
“You have to paint the picture because everyone doesn’t come from the same background,” he says. Joy Division are a reference point — Summertime ’06’s cover art is a tribute to the Manchester band’s 1979 classic Unknown Pleasures — even though half the time Staples doesn’t “know what the shit they’re talking about at all. But that’s fine. Because you know how it feels.”
Themes running through his raps — money, bravado, fear, numbness — express the experience of growing up as a have-not in a country that worships success. “It kind of diminishes your confidence. It builds up like an anger that you don’t really notice. At a certain point in time all that boils over,” he says.
“No one’s really asking these kids, ‘Are you OK, how’s your day?’ My nephew’s six years old, I make it a point every time I see him to go, ‘What’s wrong?’ and every time I see him he has something to say. That was my breaking point when I was 13 years old, I got overwhelmed by certain things.”
Those “certain things” include a friend jailed for accidentally shooting a child dead. At that point Staples was a member of a local gang, the 2NGC, following in his father’s footsteps. “I hold nothing against my father. People have to understand that life is a thing, and no one’s life belongs to you,” he says.
Staples Sr dealt and used drugs (his son is teetotal). Vince’s mother worked at a Toyota factory. As a schoolboy he divided his time between North Long Beach and Compton, where his grandparents live.
“They never taught me how to be a man/ Only a shooter,” runs a chilling line from Summertime ’06. “You have to think about it in the reality of what war is,” Staples says. Another song on the album describes teenage gang members as “crabs in a bucket” who are “bred to kill”. Distant onlookers such as myself, raised on gangsta rap’s tales of Los Angeleno street gangs 25 years ago, might picture two warring clans of Crips and Bloods fighting over territory. But Staples corrects me.
“Now no one cares about anything like that,” he says. “It’s all about spilt blood. You have problems with the people that have hurt you. When they kill your friend, that’s when it’s a problem. Say there’s a neighbourhood you get along with, if someone kills someone from your generation, you’re going to start that beef. But the older generation might not partake in it. It’s very specific and it changes with the generations. And it’s based on who has wronged you.”
Staples has semi-extricated himself from his former life, reluctant to repudiate it but also unwilling to glamorise it. He now lives in suburban Orange County (“I fucking hate it”). “I have a nice car and I live in a nice place,” he says. “The police do not mess with me. You get what I’m saying? In our country we’re still playing the black and white game, instead of playing the rich and poor game.”
He turned himself round by taking up rap music — “I didn’t really know what I was doing, got the hang of it eventually” — but he disdains current hip-hop culture. “There’s no leadership in rap today,” he says. “You’ve got Kanye West, you’ve got Jay Z, but no one else of that age is even influential at all, or even trying to be. It’d be different if they were trying to be.”
He thinks for an instant, and also exempts West Coast veteran Snoop Dogg from the denunciation, for funding community programmes.
“That’s what matters to me. I don’t care about the rest. They’re basking in their own glory about who’s the best rapper and that means nothing, because in 40 years nobody’s going to care about those people. It’s fucking sad, it’s pathetic, it’s not OK. Because how are you helping? It’s selfish. You’re 40 years old, not helping a child.”
‘Summertime ’06’ is out now on Def Jam Recordings
Photographs: Laura McCluskey; Getty Images