If the cover art of Summertime ’06, the first proper album from the Long Beach rapper Vince Staples, looks familiar to you, that’s not an accident. That Summertime ’06 cover is, of course, the cover of Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures, tweaked just slightly in that it now recalls ocean waves rather than wavforms or mountains. And it’s not a case of some Def Jam graphic designer getting cute. In the Instagram post that he used to unveil the album’s cover, Staples wrote a short essay that starts with the sentence “Love will tear us apart.” Staples wasn’t writing about the song. Instead, he was writing about the album’s title, and its themes. 2006 was when Staples was 13, the moment he believes his innocence went kablooey. And the album is about how the things that we love the most can be our undoing: “Love tore us all apart. Love for self, love for separation, love for the little we all had, love for each other, where we came from… Summer of 2006, the beginning of the end of everything I though I knew. Youth was stolen from my city that Summer and Im left alone to tell the story. This might not make sense but that’s because none of it does, we’re stuck. Love tore us all apart. Summertime ’06, June 30th.” Summertime ’06 is a concept album, and it’s one without a clear narrative. We’re not following one young California kid on his path to somewhere else, the way we are in Kendrick Lamar’s Good Kid, m.A.A.d. City or YG’s My Krazy Life. Instead, we’re hearing a young California kid reflecting on all the ways that he feels he’s still stuck. Staples is a successful young rapper with a major-label contract, but that kid is still him. Summertime ’06 is an album about the weight of trauma, about the feeling that you can’t escape the darkness that made you. And even if Staples’ context and specific darkness are different from what Ian Curtis was singing about, there’s a certain commonality there. These are two young musicians (Staples is 21, a year younger than Curtis was when Unknown Pleasures came out) trapped in their own mind-hells, two brilliant minds who sound dead inside.
Summertime ’06 also has its own Martin Hannett, a musical visionary who knows how to strip sounds away until only a cavernous, bone-tingling thump remains. In another lifetime, the Chicago producer No I.D. helped bring melodic, soulful warmth to midwest rap. He produced just about all of Common Sense’s 1994 masterpiece Resurrection, and he worked as mentor to a young Kanye West. But No I.D. is working with other sounds now, and there is no warmth to be heard on Summertime ’06. No I.D. didn’t produce all of the album; other people, like DJ Dahi and Clams Casino, chip in. But he produced more of it than anyone else, and his fingerprints are all over even the tracks he didn’t produce. On this album, No I.D.’s sound is a dry, flat boom: Clipped and minimal drums sounds, glimmers of melody from distorted electric guitars or wobbly synths, absolutely nothing that’s there to sweeten things up. There’s a lot of cold, spartan minimalism in rap music right now, and the sound of Summertime ’06 isn’t that far removed from, say, the sound of the new Tyga album. But No I.D. is willing to get deeper and darker and meaner than his peers, and the sound of Summertime ’06 is just mercilessly empty. Even “Señorita,” the single, isn’t much more than a needling piano, some metronomic drum programming, and a tourettic Future sample on the hook. Summertime ’06 sounds magnificent, its meticulously arranged noises sharp and crystalline and its bass thick enough to give your dashboard the tremors. But when you drive around playing it loud, you might feel like you’re alone in the world.
For all its iciness, though, the album moves. Part of that is because No I.D. and the other producers know how to give these dank sounds a sense of momentum. But another huge part of it is Staples. Staples is a total master at putting words together and making them sound good. That was the case when he was rapping on his friend Earl Sweatshirt’s songs at a 16-year-old: “You’re Fantasia and the body bag’s a fucking book.” And it’s even more the case now, when he’s more thoughtful and introspective than the kid we heard on those tracks. His voice is a flat, affectless mutter, but he uses it with confidence and charisma. He’s a completely focused rapper, so blank and allergic to exaggeration that he forces you to pay attention to the things he’s saying, and so gifted, as a writer, that the things he’s saying actually matter. Sometimes, that’s simply a matter of fitting together words in ways that sound great together: “From the city where the skinny carry strong heat.” Sometimes, it’s about switching up cadences so effortlessly and conversationally that you don’t quite recognize that he’s doing it until your seventh time listening. And sometimes, it’s because an offhand line is so smart and poignant that you can’t help but get stuck on it. There are a few guest rappers on Summertime ’06: A$ton Matthews, Kilo Kish, spoken-word guy Haneef Talib. But their voices never get a chance to dominate. The most famous guest on the album is Jhené Aiko, and mostly all she does is mutter sleepily along with Staples’ lyrics on “Lemme Know.” On a lot of major-label rap albums, you get the impression that the artist’s voice is one of many that shaped the thing. On Summertime ’06, Staples gets the chance to dominate completely.
And he gets the space to really get into some shit. Throughout the album, he brings up, again and again, the worry that the kids who listen to his album can’t possibly relate to him. The stunning “Señorita” video is an image of working-class minorities attempting to find some form of strength in a comic-book ghetto apocalypse, and it ends with the camera pulling back to reveal a smiling white family watching them in a museum window. That image is deep in Staples’ mind: “I done seen my homies die then went on rides to kill ‘em back / So how you say you feel me when you never had to go through that?” Even though it’s just an hour long, the album is structured as a 20-track double-LP. On the first half, Staples is talking street shit in some recognizable ways and stressing about losing himself to love or to sex: “A soldier since the stroller,” that kind of thing. He’s great at that stuff, but he never takes audible joy in it. And halfway through, the album’s sound switches up a bit and gets softer and dreamier. When that happens, Staples looks at his upbringing with a bit more distance and sees terrifying things: “We gentrified, we victimized, we fighting for survival / No hopes and dreams, just leave us be, we leaning on the bible / They preying on is, praying for a better day tomorrow / Hide the fear behind this here bravado.” He doesn’t see a way out. All he sees are structures of power looking to keep him, and everyone like him, in check.
In the past few years, we’ve heard similarly ambitious, expansive albums about what it’s like to be young and black and poor in a systemically white-supremacist society. But those albums have, by and large, suggested some form of redemption, or at least comfort. On Good Kid, m.A.A.d City, religion was salvation. On My Krazy Life, it was friendship: Even if you couldn’t count on everyone, and even if jail is waiting for you, you can know that your whole squad is going through the same things that you are. But Summertime ’06 suggests and imagines no way out. “We look at them, we see somebody who could help,” Staples muses on a spoken-word interlude during the penultimate track “Like It Is.” “But they look at us, and all they see is a nigga. It don’t really matter, anyway. We all gon’ die one day, man.” One song later, Staples is getting into what threatens to become the catchiest song on the album. 48 seconds in, he’s in the middle of a line about how he’s going to bring his whole gang with him when he gets on. Mid-sentence, mid-word, a burst of white interrupts him, and the album suddenly ends. That’s all you get.
Other albums of note out this week:
• Miguel’s psychedelic R&B sex romp Wildheart.
• Meek Mill’s cinematic, urgent Dreams Worth More Than Money.
• Refused’s volcanic post-hardcore comeback Freedom.
• Wavves and Cloud Nothings’ collaborative album No Life For Me.
• Neil Young + Promise Of The Real’s anti-corporate concept LP The Monsanto Years.
• Self Defense Family’s expansive, powerful post-hardcore ripper Heaven Is Earth.
• Tyga’s willfully nasty The Gold Album: 18th Dynasty.
• Goblin Rebirth’s self-titled horror-prog return.
• Main Attrakionz’ cloud-rap blissout 808s & Dark Grapes III.
• Ecstatic Vision’s hallucinogenic bugout Sonic Praise.
• Failure’s long-awaited reunion album The Heart Is A Monster.
• Bilal’s Adrian Younge-produced neo-soul odyssey In Another Life.
• Westkust’s jagged dream-popper Last Forever.
• LA Priest’s downtempo ’70s pastiche Inji.
• Courtney Barnett buddy Fraser A. Gorman’s Slow Gum.
• Sea Of Bees’ giddily jangling Build Me A Boat To The Sun.
• Sasha Siem’s pop-classical experiment Most Of The Boys.
• The Velvet Teen’s swaggering indie return All Is Illusory.
• Author & Punisher’s Phil Anselmo-produced industrial/doom soul-ripper Melk En Honing.
• Bad Bad Hats’ sweet, inviting debut Psychic Reader.
• Dan Svizeny’s fuzzily hopeful Whitecaps.
• Beach Moon/Peach Moon’s lush, contemplative Kite Without A String.
• Gaspar Claus’ experimental, guest-heavy live album One Night Stand.
• Tigers Jaw’s live album Studio 4 Acoustic Session.
• The all-star Southpaw soundtrack.
• Nicolas Jaar’s Nymphs III EP.
• Alden Penner’s Canada In Space EP.
• Voice Coils’ Heaven’s Sense EP.
• Wild Pink’s Good Life EP.
• Scott Bartenhagen’s Black Dane EP.
• The Bombshells’ Bake Sale Hotties cassette.
• Coaster’s Slow Jams cassette.
• Panda Bear’s PBVSGR Remixes EP.