In 2010, I saw Vince Staples in LA’s Fox Hills Mall as one third of Cutthroat Boyz along with Joey Fatts and Ashton Matthews. Yeah, a damn mall. A building which serves as a gathering of corporate interests, conspicuous consumption, materialism, and capitalism — things Staples clearly despises in his music now. He delivered hard bars about banging, slanging, and hanging with all the stage presence of a mic stand.
Dude could clearly spit his ass off at 17 or 18, but he did so on stage like he was practicing at home in the mirror with no one else in the room. He was intensely inward, unconcerned about luring or engaging anyone who may have thought about veering away from whatever brought them to the mall that day. Fatts and Matthews were much more evocative, working every inch of the pitiful makeshift stage, making its foundation ominously shake. Staples stood in one spot and delivered his verses impeccably as if the words themselves were the show. He didn’t care whether or not people felt his lyrics or took in his message. Quite frankly, he was ass as a performer. He clearly gave zero fucks, and seemed uninterested in acquiring any.
At the Spotify House at SXSW yesterday, Staples was still very much fuck-deficient, but he was uncannily engaging in his apathy and downright combativeness. He couldn’t care less about anyone’s feelings or if they were feeling him. And by anyone, I mean no one was spared the wrath of his scathing wit and astute awareness — including the company whose logo was plastered behind him — and the crowd loved him all the more for it.
Let me not undermine Staples’ stage presence. He came out fiery with “Lift Me Up” from his utterly ill double-disc debut Summertime ’06. When he began, his black Suicidal T-shirt was tucked into his light Levis, which stopped slightly premature of his Chuck Taylors. By the second verse his shirt was untucked, flailing, and he had to pull up his pants from jumping up and down and running amok on stage. What resonated most with the crowd were Summertime ’06 cuts, but at one point a group of idiots even started moshing to “Blue Suede” from Hell Can Wait. It didn’t seem out of place. It was lit. The energy only dipped between songs, when things got charged in a different way.
His banter between songs was hilarious if you weren’t at the business end of his machine-gun mouth being riddled with bullets. He called a fan “stupid” for climbing up a tree to see him better. He tested a Mexican fan on his horchata knowledge by asking him “how long you have to let the rice milk sit” before adding the rest of the ingredients, and then claimed to be more Mexican than the fan after he couldn’t answer the question. He criticized the white people in the crowd who obviously didn’t know his music, and praised the black people in the crowd who knew every word. He called out the bros who left before he closed with “Blue Suede” because they wanted to cash in their drink tickets before the show was over. He mocked the people who were clearly there for the free beer and unengaged with his performance. He drew awkward attention to what were probably young white kids of executives for some company who had access to the side of the stage. He spit venom in every direction, but none more poisonous than his retorts for the company paying him to be there.
Spotify was the butt of so many jokes that it was almost uncomfortable, but Vince’s shrewd commentary was undeniably funny. “I get an eighth of a penny every time y’all listen to one of my songs on Spotify,” Vince said. “So thank you.” He continued on another break, “Look at all the artists on the bill, if you go to Spotify and stream their albums 1000 times it’s equivalent to one album sale.” And my personal favorite: “I know y’all are Tidal users anyway, had to get that Pablo.” It was refreshing for an artist to wittily and carelessly speak out against anything and everything they don’t condone without any ulterior motive, almost even to the point of his own detriment. Spotify probably won’t ask Staples to do another show any time soon, and I don’t blame them for that, but damn was it funny to see their pants pulled down.
The more tension and uneasiness Staples built, the more the crowd engaged with him. It reminded me of how Gretchen Weiners desperately sought the attention and approval of Regina George in Mean Girls no matter how much of an asshole she was to her. With this crowd there may have even been a bit of Stockholm syndrome. Staples held them hostage with the energy and passion of his performance, and then made them seek his approval and bond with him through sheer antagonism. It was brilliant. Normally, abduction, verbal abuse, and just being a jerk are things I don’t condone, but when done this artfully with no real harm done to anyone (except a very lucrative company that probably won’t feel the effects anyway) I can allow it.
The performance displayed the same cleverness and sharp tongue Staples brings to his music. Having been a fan for quite some time, this was old news to me. But having not seen him perform since he was that timid teen in the Fox Hills Mall, I garnered a newfound respect for how far he has come as an entertainer. I think even people whom he chastised for not actually knowing his music probably left with genuine incentive to delve into it deeper. Whether it’s commentary on police brutality, gangs, drugs, crime, poverty, or the other numerous things Staples addresses inside and outside of the vocal booth, he is not going to pull any punches. But anyone at that show yesterday will be more inclined not to duck them and roll with them instead.