Not one joke at Apple’s expense? Come on, Vince Staples! Last year, at one of a zillion SXSW performances, Staples famously made fun of Spotify on stage at Spotify’s event. And not just Spotify; he made fun of everybody. As we’ve seen in a number of media moments and basically every day on Twitter, Staples the comedian is every bit as talented as Staples the rapper. The knowledge that he could go off on a humorous tirade at any moment is part of the appeal of seeing him in concert, part of the reason he became such a highlight of the festival circuit last year. At this point he’s so popular that he doesn’t have to do the whole SXSW rodeo, instead performing just one show for a presumably hefty payday.
Maybe Spotify’s competitors at Apple Music put a no-diss clause in Staples’ contract — or maybe he’s just realized his jokes are too good to give away for free — because his set Tuesday night was stoic and banter-free, more in line with the decidedly darker tone of his 2015 debut album Summertime ’06. A pre-show mix from “DJ Vincent Staples” set the mood, casting tracks from Allan Kingdom, Liars, and Kendrick Lamar against Travis Scott’s eerie new short film. When he arrived on stage in a black hoodie and Chuck Taylors under shadowy high-tech lighting, he seemed downcast and tentative. Sometimes he’d hunch over and furiously step in time with the music as he rapped, but just as often he’d stand there looking detached, as if lost in the stark, forward-thinking production that has become one of his hallmarks.
Staples is in the middle of his Life Aquatic Tour leading up to sophomore album Big Fish Theory. Despite background videos featuring a number of sea creatures floating by, he didn’t perform any unreleased music. Recent banger “BagBak” was the only presumptive Big Fish song on the setlist. He had no shortage of exciting material to work with, though. Summertime ’06 tracks like “Lift Me Up,” “Norf Norf,” and “Jump Off The Roof” formed the foundation of a set that also drew from last year’s Prima Donna EP and featured a three-song stretch highlighting Staples’ singles with producers GTA, Flume, and With You. Early hit “Blue Suede” continues to be a standout, its jarring air-raid sirens and bass bombs far more effective at getting the crowd riled up than Staples’ halfhearted calls to put your hands in the air.
There were other such visceral moments throughout the hourlong performance, like when the rapid-fire Future sample on “Señorita” sent the room spinning several times over. In these instances, Staples’ ear for killer production proved to be his salvation. He’s one of the most exciting rappers working today — a sophisticated street-life chronicler who relays his experiences with cold, hard realism and never approaches gangster rap caricature — and his deadpan delivery can translate powerfully to a festival stage when he’s fully invested in the performance. Last night, he wasn’t. Perhaps he’s just growing weary of spitting lines like “They found another dead body in the alley!” for a room full of affluent white people? Whatever the reason for his lack of engagement, one off night did little to dampen my enthusiasm for Big Fish Theory. No amount of brooding could obscure how impressive Staples’ catalog has already become.