I’ve seen Vince Staples perform three times this year, and the chronology of the shows is what made watching his headlining set at Music Hall Of Williamsburg last night so rewarding. The first was in June, a few weeks before Staples released debut album Summertime ’06, at a massive, branded local show somewhere on the Williamsburg waterfront. He was opening for Pusha T and played a short set, most memorably songs off of 2014’s Hell Can Wait EP, and “Señorita,” the standout debut single off of Summertime ’06. That song made sense as a single for two reasons. First off, it’s one of the album’s most urgent, immediate songs, and it offered a small glimpse at the thematic content to come. Second, it features an uncredited Future, whose unmistakable smokey spitfire can make any song sound familiar.
Before ’06 dropped, Staples was still standing on the sidelines, waiting to prove himself to the general public as something much, much bigger than a promising guest on a few Earl Sweatshirt albums. ’06 laid claim to his rightful position on many a year end list, including our 50 Best Albums and 40 Best Rap Albums. Staples is second only to Kendrick Lamar on the latter, and he’s 22 years old.
The second Staples set I witnessed in 2015 took place in August at MoMA PS1 Warmup, an outdoor summer concert series that boasts a lot of people in very goofy “Hey, I like art!” outfits. Staples was the only rapper on the bill alongside a bunch of DJs, and it had been about a month since ’06 dropped. He performed about a dozen songs off of it, but everyone still moved the most to “Blue Suede,” Hell Can Wait’s stand-out.
For anyone who didn’t read the various interviews Staples gave on the subject of his debut album, Summertime ’06 might’ve sounded surprising. It is not a “summer jam” in the traditional sense, and there were definitely people who expected it to be when the title was announced. “In gang culture, the summer is when people start dying. Everybody’s outside or at the beach with their shirts off. Now you can see the tattoos, those sleeves. ‘Oh, what’s that?'” That’s what Staples told The Fader about the title of his album. And so there is something inherently distressing that comes with watching a crowd Williamsburg, Brooklyn chanting along to some of that album’s choice lines (cue a lot of white men shouting the “Norf Norf” hook: “I ain’t never ran from nothin’ but the police”).
There’s irony in that, but in the few times I’ve seen Staples perform, I’m always floored by how easily he navigates the album’s content with a crowd who just wants to set it the fuck off. He made a few jokes about Williamsburg and gentrification, he mentioned that whenever he sees a lot of white people he wonders where there’s a Whole Foods. Despite all of the tragedy to be found in Summertime ’06, Staples might be the funniest performer I’ve seen this year. There’s fury in his prose, in his performance, but between songs that rage is remedied by banter that made me straight-up cackle last night. He berated an 11-year-old kid named Gio (someone’s son, I’m not sure) who he knew to be in the crowd for taking Snapchat videos of the performance, reminding him, “that’s data, bro.” A plea to free Bobby Shmurda devolved into a diatribe about how much Staples doesn’t trust the police, or the FBI, or the CIA. He doesn’t fuck with NCIS, and he definitely doesn’t fuck with Judge Judy. If you don’t follow Staples on Twitter, you should just stop reading this review and go do that right now.
Staples strolled onstage to “Ramona Park Legend, Pt. 1,” the instrumental interlude that inaugurates Summertime ’06 and shows up throughout the course of the album as a fleeting motif. It’s the sound of lapping waves and seagulls; an 808 claps out a few staggering beats before it’s silenced by a single gunshot. Staples followed the album’s chronology with “Lift Me Up,” the song that introduces Summertime ’06’s landscape with a series of situational realizations: “All these white folks chanting when I asked ‘em where my niggas at?/ Goin’ crazy, got me goin’ crazy I can’t get wit’ that/ Wonder if they know, I know they won’t go where we kick it at.” From there, Staples tucked his T-shirt into his jeans and performed Hell Can Wait’s “65 Hunnid Degrees,” followed by “Birds & Bees,” “Dopeman,” “Hang N’ Bang,” and eight more songs off of Summertime ’06. The show was about an hour long, and Staples appropriately encored with “Blue Suede,” which was expected and so, so gratifying.
When Staples asked everyone if this was their first “Vince Staples show,” he was met with the loudest applause of the night. That probably felt cool as hell, and it gave weight to the most repeated question he asked throughout the night: “Who’s heard Summertime ’06?” It was always met with some noise, but he usually followed-up that noise with “No really, who’s heard Summertime ’06?” One one hand, that kind of question is a device, a way to get the crowd stoked, but it’s also kind-sorta a real question. The Circa ’06 tour is the first time that Staples has toured with an entire album’s worth of material to share with people. Not just an album. A complex, long, challenging album filled with memorable hooks, sure, but also a lot of sadness. Knowing that people in Brooklyn, NY identify with a story about Long Beach, CA is important. It proves that these personal memories, these narratives should never be protected or stored away. They can be parsed and sculpted into towering works of art worth sharing with people. This is also the first time Staples has toured during year-end season, when it seems like anyone who gives a shit about popular music has dropped his name in conversation. He’s got a critically acclaimed debut (a double album, no less), and his live performance on-lock. Staples’ rise in 2015 is one to be reckoned with.
01 “Lift Me Up”
02 “65 Hunnid”
03 “Birds & Bees”
05 “Hang N’ Bang”
06 “C.N.B. (Coldest Nigga Breathing)”
07 “Get Paid”
09 “Hands Up”
10 “Street Punk”
11 “Jump Off The Roof”
12 “Norf Norf”
14 “Blue Suede” (Encore)