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Just as 2013 and 2014 were, 2015 is shaping up to be a brilliant year for rap music. There have been phenomenal albums in Kendrick Lamar‘s To Pimp A Butterfly, Young Thug‘s Barter 6, and Chance the Rapper‘s Surf (under the modest guise of Donnie Trumpet & the Social Experiment) to name a few. You can now add Vince Staples‘ major label debut album Summertime ’06 to that list.
What’s so refreshing about Summertime ’06 is how accomplished it sounds. If you listen to Vince’s four mixtapes preceding last year’s major label debut EP Hell Can Wait, you can trace his development as a rapper – he evolves from the woozy haze-style Earl Sweatshirt copycat to finding urgency in his cherubic voice and eventually ending up making more ambitious music than Sweatshirt, his friend whom he used to contribute guest verses to, which provided the kick start for his rapping career to take off.
2014’s Hell Can Wait EP, released on Def Jam, is where Staples finally found his voice. Sick and tired of faux ‘happy’ rap, Staples unleashed seven tracks of club-ready pessimistic anthems that detailed street life and portrayed life as the cheating of death. Due to its overwhelming intelligence, observance, and airtight ryhmes, Hell Can Wait promoted Staples to the major league of rap – he was no longer merely just Sweatshirt’s sidekick.
Released as a 20-track double album and Staples’ full-length debut, Summertime ’06 comes as a continuation of Hell…‘s brilliance. Staples has used the last four years to not only hone his craft as a rapper, but also as a lyricist – he’s become a gritty social commentator: “No matter what we grow into, we never gunna escape our past” (Like It Is). The blunt, cathartic realism in Staples’ lyrics flow around the tense beats like water around rocks, resulting in such a menacing beast of an album – when Staples’ groans “I hate when you lie; I hate the truth, too” on Jump Off the Roof, it’s a paradox, but you know exactly what he means.
The centerpiece of the double album, Summertime, is Staples’ attempt at a love song, as he croons in auto-tune about affection and (a lack of) hope. He sounds forlorn and downhearted as he begs “don’t leave me alone in this cruel, cruel world“, claiming that his “feelings told [him] that love is real, but feelings here can get you killed“. It’s genuinely moving, possibly alluding to the hyper masculinity that dominates rap music and the necessity of a stiff upper lip to avoid being branded as ‘soft’.
Summertime‘s allure is then enhanced as, dejected, Staples ponders: “My teachers told us we were slaves, my momma told me we was kings/ I don’t know who to listen to, I guess we somewhere in between“. This is particularly fascinating, adhering to Bowles and Gintis’ research suggesting that school mirrors the workplace through its hierarchical structures – teachers give orders and pupils obey. Juxtaposed to being told he is a slave by his master, he is told the polar opposite by his well-meaning mother. Both are hyperbolic, and Staples knows this, thus settling for the middleground.
Finding balance between two extremes is what has allowed Staples to make a debut album that sounds familiar, yet completely original at the same time. On the penultimate track, Like It Is, Staples acknowledges his sins and, for once, embraces hope: “I gotta be the one to make it up to heaven, despite the things I’ve done“. This, however, comes foreshadowed by the opening track of last year’s Hell Can Wait, were Staples admits that he’s “probably finna go to hell anyway“. The album closer, ’06, is brash and brings the album to a static halt after just 46 seconds, with Staples mid-flow. What this abrupt ending to the album proves is that Staples hasn’t finished talking, so hell is going to have to wait a little bit longer.