Vince Staples Is Writing Masterful Songs About Home
Vince Staples’ ‘Ramona Park Broke My Heart’ is a brilliant reflection of his complex relationship with the idea of home. Here are our thoughts on the album.
Image via Getty/Matt Winkelmeyer
Vince Staples went viral earlier this month when he told Complex that he doesn’t invite friends, romantic interests, or anyone else to his home. With a laugh, he explained to Speedy Morman that only his loved ones (and court) know where he even lives. “Why would [anyone else] know where I live at?” he incredulously asked.
His revelation could be nothing more than a character quirk, but it was a timely turn of conversation in the aftermath of his latest release, Ramona Park Broke My Heart. The sanctity of home is especially vital for Vince Staples, the Long Beach scribe whose candid lyrics depict the weariness of his hometown. His catalog makes the trenches of sunny Southern California feel dreary. Rhymes like “your first rap can be a murder rap” on Ramona Park opener “The Beach” cast a cloud over his surroundings, making one ponder how our perspectives are shaped by home not feeling like a sanctuary.
Hip-Hop is obsessed with home. The first thing most people want to know about an act is where they’re from, because, even in 2022, their upbringing is a strong indication of their accent, slang, their production choices, and their content. The internet has birthed international SoundCloud and Discord communities full of artists who transcend region, but there are still MCs who flout their native cities’ flag without even trying. As a New York-based writer, I can tell Brooklyn drill from Bronx drill. On Ramona Park standout “East Point Prayer,” we hear the difference between Lil Baby’s Atlanta twang and Vince Staples’ hardened SoCal accent.
Our communities mold us, but as Vince Staples laments, it’s not always for the best. The album intro, “The Beach,” starts out with the serene sounds of a calm day at the beach, but the silence is splintered by Vince rhyming about being an “everybody killer.” In other words, anybody can get it. The song ends with gunshots and screams. The juxtaposition is jarring. Transplants may visit LA to take in the lush atmosphere and expansive beaches, but for too many LA natives it’s “live by the gun, die by the sand,” like Vince rhymed on “Bang That.”
The project’s soundscape carries a similar yin-yang dynamic, with a sunny, smooth soundscape ripe for cruising through LA and taking in the surroundings, juxtaposed with grim lyrics that remind how harrowing the wrong turn can be. The LeKen Taylor-produced “Free The Homies” is a balmy, synth-driven track that begins with a woman bemoaning how grief has angered her community, then takes us into the mindset of a gang member acting on vengeance. “In too deep, I ain’t with the peace/ Wanna end the beef? Tell them niggas, ‘Bring my homies back,’” Vince rhymes. It’s a simple premise that’s been said many times over in rap, tv, and movies, but it seems to cut with the same pathos each time we hear it.
The toll of loss seeps through every track on Ramona Park. Vince rhymes about violence with a matter-of-factness that radiates how insidious lust for vengeance can become. Some critics and fans surmised that Vince’s lazy delivery on his 2021 self-titled album reflected a lack of passion for his craft. But on that project, like this one, his laissez delivery serves as a creative device that demonstrates his despondency from a world of death and dread. On “East Point Prayer,” he moves to Atlanta, seemingly to escape his situation in Long Beach. But as the adage goes, change is never as simple as taking the person out of the hood. His purposely muttering delivery feels like watching a pole vaulter squeak over the pole—he’s just trying to get by. “Married to the streets, know she get around, I never wanna leave, I’m never out of bounds” Vince rhymes. The bars stick out in contrast to later verses, in which he raps, “I been out all night tryna make it out.” Even as he’s earning to provide for himself and his family, he knows that his propensity for violence will follow him wherever “out” is, as will the traumatic consequences of his home. That’s what makes his intertwining of “body for a body, big body Benz truck” not just deft alliteration, but a succinct commentary on the ties between violence and material gain.
There are tracks about money on Ramona Park, but Vince doesn’t get sidetracked by materialism. “Papercuts” is one of the most meta songs on the project, as he rhymes from the perspective of a conflicted MC who “hate(s) this industry” but also speaks for us all when he admits, “I love my direct deposit.” “Papercuts” is far from luxury rap; it’s a bitter reflection that even after he made it “out,” he never fully did. At the end of his first verse, he speaks on trying to spread his newfound wisdom among those in the hood, failing, and then stopping altogether because his sense of conflict resolution is shot. “I try to teach, but then these niggas think he tryna preach, and I ain’t got no timе for nobody out here tryin’ me,” he rhymes. Sometimes, making it “out” doesn’t just preserve you, it ostracizes you when the violent dynamics of home are counterintuitive to career success.
Also on “Papercuts,” Vince rhymes about “always lookin’ for a bag, never had the time to grieve,” de-glamorizing the paper chase. You can chase a fortune, but you won’t enjoy it to the fullest if they’re mentally ailing once you get it. Vince also boasts, “Now everything I dream is everything you see,” but instead of following that up with lines about jewels or jets, he mentions “ridin’ with the blick, thirty shots at least.” For some people, coming up isn’t necessarily about putting your gun up. It can be just about cruising with your gun in a nicer car. This all sounds like tragedy spawned from intense violence.
Ramona Park brilliantly encapsulates the conflict sown from being so traumatized by your home that the treacherous conditions feel like a haven.
“Papercuts” is a glimpse at the limits of dreaming when a misguided community is your confines. In some neighborhoods, promising children are sent to camp or a private school. Vince’s experience was different, as he rapped on “Magic”: “Momma met my daddy, then they had me in the ghetto/ Handed me a .38 and told me I was special.” The bar isn’t just slick wordplay, it’s one of the most potent couplets in Vince’s catalog. It underscores attachment to a community so plagued by generational violence that they don’t realize they’re corrupting the youth, because their elders may not have realized either.
A gun is the catalyst for “When Sparks Fly,” a brilliantly crafted metaphor that personifies a weapon. The ode to his gun is, sadly, the most passionate song on the project. Vince commandeers a smooth Frano beat with bars like, “When you first shot your shot, I knew you would be the one to hit the spot,” and the humorous, “Only you can make it clap for the homies, I am not.” It could pass for a traditional love song, but the grimmer side of Vince’s entendre pokes holes in the menagerie when he raps, “Put that pussy nigga ‘cross the street from Cherry Park.” The mesh of love and violence is genius here. The double-meaning corrupts his “I’m losing faith, cause you keep stalling” refrain from a longing for love into a line about his gun’s capability to inflict pain.