Vince Staples came about as close as you can come to being a member of Odd Future without actually joining Odd Future. On the crew’s first wave of internet-breaking mixtapes, Staples is all over some of the most indelible tracks, like Mike G’s “Moracular World” and Earl Sweatshirt’s “epaR,” and his “Don’t touch it, don’t even fucking look / You are Fantasia and the body bag’s a fucking book” moment on the latter is one of those lines that just rattles around in your head for days. Since that initial wave, he’s maintained close ties with Earl, and his guest verse on Earl’s “Hive” (“Ruger with the pork face / Jewish for the court case / Here to save you niggas from the sorbet, Coldchain”) stood tall alongside everything an on-fire Earl was doing on that song. If you go back and listen to Staples’s earliest music (like the original Shyne Coldchain tape, from 2011), that early Odd Future lo-fi aesthetic comes through, too; there’s lots of snarling over muffled bloops, lots of spleen vented at absent fathers and clueless adults. But on his new tape Shyne Coldchain Vol. 2, Staples does something none of the actual Odd Future members has yet managed: He becomes a convincing adult. Shyne Coldchain Vol. 2 is something I never expected to hear from anyone associated with Odd Future: A powerful argument for the ongoing vitality of conscious rap.
On “Trunk Rattle,” the most snarly track on Shyne Coldchain Vol. 2, Staples make a sneering reference to changing rap tastes, recalling “back when Common had you trying to read Qu’rans and go to college.” The intentional irony is that the beats on most of the tape come from No I.D., the Chicago producer who put together all of Common’s career-defining 1994 classic Resurrection. And Common looms large over the tape. Staples is concerned with the same things has Common was: The discordance and frustration that come with being a black man trying to get along in a world that’s built to be hostile to you. A few bars into the tape, Staples offers his boldest provocation: “You see, Obama just a house nigger to me / They locked the children up in prison and they ditching the key.” (I don’t know if Common would’ve said something like that even in his most militant moment, but his buddies in Dead Prez absolutely would’ve.) And Staples is just as likely as Common to speak in grand, sweeping gestures: “He got a book, he got a brain, you better run / Was the one that they shunned / Baptized in the tears of the slaves as a young.” He also says plain, personal stuff about how young black men get involved in violence because they have no other options and because that’s what surrounds them. That pisses Staples off, and he makes constant references to America’s vast history of racism. But he also gets a charge out of the violence that Common never got, and when he remembers packing a gun, he’s braggin and lamenting at the same time.
For all its revolutionary talk, this is not the sort of granola conscious rap that would’ve ended up on the Brown Sugar soundtrack once upon a time. Instead, this is hard, cold, sneering music without a hint of hope. Staples has none of the friendly conversational warmth that Common and his peers once glowed with. Instead, he still sounds the way he sounded on those old Odd Future tapes: Tough, blank, expressionless. His rapping voice is a deadpan monotone that never shows anything resembling emotion. It’s like life has beaten all the excitement out of him, and now all that’s left for him to do is to play around with vicious language. That was unsettling on those Odd Future tapes, when he was talking about kidnapping and raping with the rest of them. Those tapes obviously caused a ton of controversy, but I thought their implicit point was pretty obvious: These kids have no fathers and no prospects, so of course they’re indulging in the most repellant and violent fantasies imaginable. But Shyne Coldchain Vol. 2 brings Staples to a place where he’s starting to learn about and understand the reasons for his own coldness, and he still sounds like that. If anything, it’s even more unsettling.
There’s a lot on the tape about vast societal wrongs, but the most powerful song is “Nate,” the one where Staples raps about his father, a criminal whose charisma Staples idolized: “As a kid, all I wanted was to kill a man / Be like my daddy’s friends, hopping out the minivan.” The song is only three and a half minutes long, but as it progresses, you can start to hear it start to dawn on Staples that his father is less worthy than he once thought. He ends with this devastating vignette: “Used to see him stand out in the alley through my window / Drinking Hen with his homies, blowing cig smoke / Lights flashing, now he running from the Winslows / Hear his screaming for my mama at the backdoor / Sometime she wouldn’t open it / Sitting on the couch, face emotionless / I don’t think they noticed that I noticed it.” This is deep self-disclosure stuff, the sort of stuff you talk about in therapy years later. And yet Staples delivers it all with his voice sounding as cold and emotionless as his mother’s face in that memory.
This is a brief tape: 10 songs, most of them less than three minutes, no rapping guests, barely any choruses. The only guests are the singers Jhené Aiko and James Fauntleroy, and even their contributions are barely noticeable. The beats, all muted handclaps and muttering keyboards sound just as pessimistic beaten-down as Staples’s voice; No I.D. is no longer handing out the incandescent soul loops he gave Common on Resurrection. But for all its brevity and expressionlessness, this is a bold and important tape, a huge step forward for Staples. Staples was already a stalwart in California’s growing young rap underground, but this tape works as a powerful argument that he’s quickly becoming something more.
Download Shyne Coldchain Vol. 2 here.