“When I was a kid, I never wanted to be a rapper.”
Vince Staples is a reluctant MC who happens to be very good at rapping — elite, even. He mixes dark humor with brutal honesty to portray a difficult biography grounded in Long Beach, Calif. A former Crip with an incarcerated father, Staples grew up in a household marred by America’s failed War on Drugs. Now, armed with a burgeoning rap career, the 23-year-old is trying to change that narrative for his community by partnering with the Greater Long Beach YMCA to create the Youth Institute, a program that teaches kids the skills necessary for a career in the music business.
That is the real Vince Staples — not the snarky Twitter troll he portrays online. And his internet persona has gained him significant attention. The kid has jokes for days, and he’s quickly developing a reputation for being much more outspoken than any of his peers. But on record, he raps with the grim, calculated coolness of an OG who’s seen it all — which he has. That combination of wit and wisdom is one of the main reasons he finds himself on the verge of becoming a rap star. The name of his new project, the Prima Donna EP, a seven-track follow-up to his solo debut Summertime ‘06, encapsulates his feelings about his new lifestyle. On the album, which just dropped and can be streamed here, he tackles the ups and downs of being a successful rapper and how it ultimately feels unfulfilling. In short, Vince isn’t impressed.
The rapper's blunt honesty is evident in person as well, as Complex found out in a wide-ranging interview that included Staple's opinions on Young Thug, 1990s rap, how people act a fool online, and more.
You’re doing some great stuff in the neighborhood you grew up in. Can you talk about the program you started with the Long Beach YMCA?
It’s kind of a music thing, a startup program. We’re going to teach kids about the business aspects behind certain parts of this industry, because you know how we do kids, man. If you’re not the rap star, nobody’s telling you that you can be the manager, you can be this or you can be that. We don't really do that for kids, so I just kind of wanted to put it out there so they’d be able to understand a lot of different aspects of what we do. That’s why we’re doing 3D printing for the design factor, we got them making short films to be able to shoot videos and learning about engineering, mixing and mastering. There’s more than one way to be inside this industry.
Let's say you get Kanye money or Jay Z money. What other goals do you have?
I just want to make it to a level to have a better quality of life, bro. I ain’t a fan of gentrification by any means, but I think we have what it takes to improve our community. We got the relationships with these companies and they look at us enough to where you can tell a motherfucker, “Ay, you should open this here or do this here.” I feel like building a community up is an important thing. I hate the idea of the more you make, the more you get cracking, you got to move out the ’hood. What does that shit even mean?
You can stay in Long Beach and build the community up. It’s an L.A. suburb—it’s not a run-down, inner-city ghetto.
Exactly, and on top of that, nowhere’s a ghetto. When my grandparents moved to Compton, it was all white people, it was a prime suburb, baseball players and shit used to live there; now it’s one of the most feared places in the world. You hear that name and people know you done seen some shit. It wasn't like that at the beginning, but we can make our communities the best.
"WHEN MY GRANDPARENTS MOVED TO COMPTON, IT WAS ALL WHITE PEOPLE, IT WAS A PRIME SUBURB, BASEBALL PLAYERS AND SHIT USED TO LIVE THERE; NOW IT’S ONE OF THE MOST FEARED PLACES IN THE WORLD."
You’ve been kind of quiet on Twitter lately, what’s going on?
Honestly, to keep it 200 with you, I ain’t never really give a fuck about Twitter or the Internet or any shit like that. I didn’t have a phone for years. There was a point where it was important for my job, but I've made enough headway where I don't really need to tweet to sell out shows. See, it’s all a marketing tool. There’s a lot of negativity that comes with [Twitter], so after a certain point it’s not worth it.
The Prima Donna EP is obviously a warm up. What can we fans expect from your sophomore LP?
I’m at the point where I’m honest with my shit: I’m trying to figure out what to do next. I’m just trying to get better and learn how to really make the music how I hear it in my head, for lack of better words. I'm in a really good place right now, just more concise, more specific. This is the next step along the lines of what we’ve already done. It might be a step forward, it might be a step back, but it’s the next step and it’s not going to be the same.
Why name the EP Prima Donna? You don't give off that “prima donna” vibe.
Because that’s how people treat you, bro. Once you reach that level of success, you’re different. If you don’t wanna do a show, because you wanna hang with your family or you’re tired, they call you ungrateful. It’s just how we treat artists. People build you up to tear you the fuck down.
You touch on that on the last verse of “War Ready” when you rap, “They only love the rapper if the rapper rich.”
If a rapper came out and told you, “I don’t got that much money,” the internet, the world, will clown that n***a, bro. There’s no such thing as a working class artist. If you the rap n***a, you gotta be rich, you gotta have this and that. It don’t make no damn sense. It’s to the point where we got motherfuckers pretending they this and pretending they that. It’s corny, bro.
You have a James Blake feature on the new EP and showed up for his set at Glastonbury a few months ago. How did you two link up?
That’s my boy, that’s a good friend of mine, he’s the man. I’m glad you asked that. He wanted me to do something for his project, so after the session he was like, “I just wanted to meet you, I’m a fan of your music. You can do the song if you want to, but I don't really care.” After that we went back to the studio and booked another session; he gave me “Big Time” and another song, and when he came back to the U.S. he gave me “War Ready” and a gang of other stuff.
So if you’re listening to James Blake, does that mean you be on your emo shit sometimes?
[Laughs] You funny. I don't listen to a lot of rap, it’s like a movie, bro. I listen to music like movies. If you from the streets or from a specific area—like I lived my whole life in Long Beach, so when I see a movie that’s specifically about Long Beach, I’m not going to be that impressed. I’m not learning nothing new. When I was younger rap was cool, but when Panic! At the Disco and Plain White T's and all that shit came out, I was into it because I was like, “Where are these kind of white boys? Because in Long Beach the white people ain't like that, know what I mean?"
You played a show with Bon Iver as well. What does Bon Iver seem to get about hip-hop that other white boys with guitars don't?
Justin [Vernon, leader of Bon Iver] is a homie, he’s a good dude. I feel like a lot of times the culture behind hip-hop might be off-putting to people that don’t come from where it comes from in a sense, but everyone I’ve met, people who are real musically inclined and introduced me to Portishead, The Velvet Underground, Sleep — people I randomly bump into — all these dudes love hip-hop. I feel like most white guys with guitars get hip-hop. They like hip-hop more than we like their music, in a sense.
"I’ll work Obama. He out here with missile launch codes, he’s got too much to worry about. Obama ain’t thinking hoop."
You’ve been extremely outspoken on social issues. How do you feel about Melo and LeBron and them speaking out about police brutality at the ESPYS, and Melo speaking out again at the Olympics?
That’s what they’re supposed to do, because those are the types of dudes that understand what we go through on a daily basis. The n****s don’t have to say nothing, but as a man and as a part of the community they should, straight up.
So you think athletes have a responsibility to speak up?
I mean, people in general speaking out is important. I don’t think we should be looking at nobody. Martin Luther King wasn’t a fucking athlete, he was a pastor. Who was Che Guevara? Who was Cesar Chavez? Who were these people? They weren't no superstars. Anyone can become anything and become something special.
You played basketball heavily as a kid. Do you think you could beat President Obama on the court?
That n****’s trash—I’ll work Obama. He out here with missile launch codes, he’s got too much to worry about. Obama ain’t thinking hoop.
Last November, you compared Donald Trump to Michael Jordan. I think the quote was, “They’re the epitome of bad people becoming successful.”
N****s are evil, bro.
What are your thoughts about Jordan finally speaking about against police brutality?
Good for him. I’m glad he said something, but you can’t talk about people getting killed by the police and then donate money to the police.
It was to The Institute for Community-Police Relations, an organization that aiming to fix the relationship between police and the community, whatever that means.
What they been doing? Why they need more money? [Laughs.] I don't know if they crackin’ like that.
I don’t know if they’ve been doing a good job.
I’m a firm believer in, it’s the thought that counts.
You were on one of our YouTube shows, Well Rounded. We were talking about Mia Khalifa. You seemed pretty knowledgeable about contemporary porn.
I’m just hilarious, bro, so I just be on everything. I got jokes, but it’s funny I was having this conversation with my homies. We need more black-owned business when it comes to pornography.
Brian Pumper had that market for a little bit.
I don't fuck with Brian Pumper. Brian Pumper be on the Long Beach Blue Line train trying to find girls—fresh 18-19 year-olds that don't know what they doing with they lives—to get them to be in his movies. Trying to get young girls, bro. He’s a weirdo!
With the fake chains on. If he came with a fat check would you give him a feature?
With the fake chains! Never, n***a, I’d rather work at Walmart.
Have you been following the Drake/Joe Budden situation?
I think rap beef is corny, I don’t like it. We’re the only genre where n****s hate on each other for no reason, openly.
Two n****s died off of that—well, they didn’t die off of that, but things got to the height where people died, and we sittin’ here doing this? For what? If y’all mad go in a room, fight, and call it a day, you feel me?
It’s about the sport, according to Joe Budden.
That’s what’s up, but it’s not a sport it’s art—it’s music. I don’t have anything against Joe Budden but that’s just how I feel. Here’s my thing, bro: when it’s all said and done I believe in even platforms. We talked about equality, right? Black and urban people, minorities—we want equality, right? So at the end of the day when we talk about music, when we talk about who the best musicians and artists of all time are, where in the conversation is someone going to say, “Man, that n***a had bars"?
"WE’RE THE ONLY GENRE WHERE N****S HATE ON EACH OTHER FOR NO REASON, OPENLY."
What's your opinion of Young Thug? He's often been criticized for not having traditional "bars."
I fuck with Young Thug. Young Thug is important. Oh yeah, I forgot his name is not Young Thug—it’s Jeffrey until he sell 100,000.
Why do you feel he's important?
Because Young Thug is doing some musician, artist shit. He’s out here breaking gender norms on his Little Richard shit, being avant-garde with his delivery on some Lil B shit. But our response to him is, “This n***a ain’t got no bars! This n***a gay!” You feel me? That’s our response to Young Thug. What does that even mean, bro?
Those same people who criticize Young Thug listen to Prince.
But do they? I don’t think that’s what they do. I think that’s just what they say they do. I think if they got that shit, they wouldn't have those opinions. We decided to be so tough and so hard, but I’m so over that.
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