Vince Staples Vs. The ’90s Rap Canon

Vince Staples Vs. The ’90s Rap Canon

Vince Staples is 22 years old. He was born in 1993. When Illmatic and Ready To Die came out, he was a baby. Staples made one of the best rap albums of the year, by any metric. He put it together with No I.D., a producer who was making classic music when Staples was barely born. But Summertime ’06, Staples’ astonishing debut album, does not sound remotely like a ’90s rap album. It’s all harsh, buzzing electronic textures and thoughtful-but-deadpan incisiveness. It doesn’t even sound like any music that’s being made now. It carries distant echoes of, say, Clipse’s Hell Hath No Fury or his friend Earl Sweatshirt’s Doris, but it’s not an album built on a foundation of other things. It’s its own album. That’s a good thing. We are lucky that there’s a 22-year-old kid out there making incredible rap music that doesn’t sound like other rap music. That’s the way music pushes forward and evolves and keeps its power. Rap’s way forward is not Joey Bada$$ doing his ’90s-revivalist shtick, as fun as that can be sometimes. It’s this kid, and kids like him, with their own influences and ideas and experiences. That shouldn’t be a problem for anyone. The problem, it seems, comes when one of these kids dares to have opinions that fly in the face of canonical received wisdom. Staples has those. Right now, thanks to the whole Twitter mob mentality, Staples is in danger of becoming better-known as the guy who hates ’90s rap — something he’s never claimed to do — than as the guy who made Summertime ’06. That would be a fucking tragedy.

In a recent Time interview, Staples had some things to say about ’90s rap. Here’s the money quote: “The ’90s get a lot of credit. I don’t really know why. Biggie and Tupac, those are the staples of the ’90s. That’s why they get the Golden Era credit. There’s not a 50 Cent in the ’90s. They didn’t even have a Kanye.” (I’m pretty sure he meant “staples of the ’90s” and not “Staples of the ’90s.” That would be a different thing. That would be pretty interesting, too.) And if you’re the type of overbearing ’90s rap fan who’s determined to discredit Staples, here’s the other money quote: “The first song I remember listening to is Lil Bow Wow ‘Bounce With Me.’ Lil Bow Wow is one of my favorite rappers ever. You could never take that from me.” Now: Staples is not being entirely sincere here, something that should be evident if you’ve ever listened to Staples’ music. He likes fucking with people, both musically and in his general extramusical presence. (He has a running Twitter joke in which he constantly shouts out Sprite, putting on a straight face to put on a commercial-pitchman persona whenever it suits him.) Staples probably enjoyed the shit out of some Bow Wow songs when he was nine, just like I enjoyed the shit out of some MC Hammer songs when I was nine. He’s also fucking with us, the rap-listening public. That can be a lot of fun. (Trust me, I know. I wrote this.) But he’s also making a point, and it’s a point we would do well to consider.

’90s rap is fucking amazing. It’s my favorite rap music. It’s the era when rap albums, across the board, became complete and fully thought-out statements, when people were pushing the music forward just about every week. It’s the decade of Ready To Die and Aquemini and In A Major Way and The Infamous and Ironman and Ridin’ Dirty and E. 1999 Eternal and Lethal Injection and Midnight Marauders. It’s my favorite period of rap music. It’s my favorite period of music. But I should feel that way. I was born in 1979. The ’90s took me from age 11 to age 21. Those were formative years for me. They were not formative years for Vince Staples. Even the albums that I didn’t hear at the time, or that I didn’t learn to appreciate at the time — I can go back and figure those out. I have context and perspective. I can remember the time and think about how the music might’ve sounded when it was brand new. Staples can do the same thing, but for him, it’s pure abstraction. He can imagine hearing The Chronic or Illmatic when they were new, but only in the way I can imagine driving a Camaro and banging Maggot Brain or Master Of Reality. Maggot Brain and Master Of Reality are great albums. But they are not central to my identity. Nor should they be.

The problem comes when we start thinking in terms of canons and enforcing those canons. That has been happening a lot in rap lately. For years, online rap discourse has centered around the idea of the classic, the universally agreed-upon rap masterpiece that transcends time and builds the foundation of all that follows. Depending on who you listen to, you are not allowed to have a real opinion on rap if you haven’t fully internalized and learned to appreciate Nation Of Millions or Cuban Linx or 400 Degreez or, more than anything, Illmatic. That attitude is a deadly fun-killer. It turns music into homework. And it calcifies music and creates the idea that it can never be done as well as it was in the distant past. That idea is the worst. It reminds me of being a teenage punk and hearing, over and over again, that my punk rock experience was not valid. I wasn’t around for the Clash or the Exploited or Black Flag. Everything was dead by the time I got there. As if I couldn’t get the same feeling from Rancid or Avail or Aus-Rotten. I hated that. And maybe my experience really was different from that of the punks who’d come before. But it was my experience, and it meant everything to me. If Staples got the same thing from Lil Bow Wow (or, more realistically, from Kanye West or 50 Cent), it’s ridiculous for us to act like he’s wrong. Music is a subjective thing. When you assign objectivity to it, you suck all the life out of it.

This is weird to think about now, but if you were a rock fan in the ’90s, you were constantly confronted with images of the ’70s. Bellbottoms came back. The original lineup of Kiss reunited, in full makeup, and people were really excited about it. A new tribute album seemed to come out every week. We heard over and over again that the self-titled Ramones album or Led Zeppelin IV were the greatest albums ever made. The poster of arms-outstretched Jim Morrison seemed to be on every kid’s wall. And this was during a really good time for rock music. In 1995, the former Minutemen bassist Mike Watt scored his only-ever solo hit, “Against The ’70s.” Eddie Vedder sang the song, and Krist Novoselic and Dave Grohl played on it. The song’s message was about as clear as it gets: Nostalgia is a destructive force. “The kids of today should defend themselves against the ’70s / It’s not reality / Just someone else’s sentimentality.” Now: Eddie Vedder has spent too much time covering Neil Young and the Who to be an entirely reliable source on this one. He didn’t hate the music of the ’70s. He doesn’t hate the music of the ’70s. But this was still a vital and urgent thing to get across right then. And if it takes Vince Staples being an irreverent scamp to get the same message across today, so be it. There has been great rap music in every era since rap music came into being. There is great rap music right now. If you try to assign some objective hierarchy to the history of this stuff, you will fuck yourself over by forcing yourself to ignore a whole lot. And if you teach other people that the ’90s are the unreachable, infallible apex of rap music, then you are fucking over other people. Don’t do that. Stop doing that.


1. Brodinski & Shy Glizzy – “WOAH”
Globalization means we’re losing all our manufacturing jobs to third-world countries where people are working in appalling conditions and that multinational corporations are holding entire nations hostage. But it also means a French house producer can crank out a thundering-monster synth-stomp beat and a hyperactive D.C. tough guy can chant hyperactive tough-guy shit all over it, and it can be magical. So call it a wash, I guess?

2. Iamsu! – “Throwin It” (Feat. Trevor Jackson)
When Iamsu! tries to get too smart or introspective, he can get in his own way. But when he’s making funky, fussy, unapologetic party-rap, there’s almost no one better. This one is so smooth and sticky and fun that it deserves to be absolutely huge. Iamsu! still hasn’t managed to score a real solo hit of his own; maybe this can be it.

3. Timbaland – “Them Jeans” (Feat. Migos)
Timbaland might be my favorite rap producer ever, but he’s been sucking for almost a solid decade now. And these days, he’s spending most of his time churning out glossy, unremarkable music for Empire. So I am so, so delighted to hear him cranking out a piece of unassumingly funky synth-bleep rap and then getting Migos to bounce their voices all over it. This gives me “Phat Rabbit” flashbacks, and I mean that as the deepest compliment.

4. Jadakiss – “You Can See” (Feat. Future)
Jadakiss is a forever-unchanging paragon of razorblade-to-your-face East Coast rap hardness. Future is the greatest driving force behind the gooey Atlanta codeine music that’s currently pushing razorblade-to-your-face East Coast rap hardness into distant-memory status. They should not make sense together. And yet they sound beautiful here, Jada’s blunt intensity grounding Future’s hazy flights and Future shooting excitement through Jada’s scowling matter-of-factness. Jada has a dubious history of chasing hits, and that’s probably what he’s doing here. But against all odds, it works.

5. Freddie Gibbs – “Fuckin’ Up The Count”
Gibbs has spent years proving that he can tear any beat to pieces, but there’s something great about hearing him on a track this hazy and twinkly and soft. There’s a nice tension between how tough Gibbs is and how resolutely un-tough the music is.


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