Few rappers sound less impressed by their own talent than Vince Staples. The 21-year-old Long Beach native raps with switchblade precision, in a contemptuous sneer that casts judgment on every word out of his mouth. He’s a born natural orator, yet he never plays up his best lyrics, or builds in pauses to allow listeners to drink up his cleverness the way showier rappers do. He just bats around words the way a cat tosses a dead mouse, with a casual, disinterested air that somehow makes the whole act feel that much more callous.
Until now, Staples has trafficked in concise statements, releasing a lean mixtape every year or so leading up to his 2014 Def Jam debut Hell Can Wait, an EP that moved with the speed of an airstrike. That he’s so far staked his career on brevity only makes his decision to make his first full-length record a double album seem that much more audacious, but even his take on the double album is a model of concision: Each disc of Summertime ’06 is just a half hour, with no skits, few features, little repetition, and no big moments spelling out its themes for Rap Genius users. It’s a major triumph disguised as a minor one—60 minutes of lean, inventive, important rap music that never pats itself on the back for being any of those things.
By virtue of age, proximity, and skill set, Staples can’t help but come across like the dark shadow of the most prominent Cali rapper making complicated music about the Darwinian plight of the inner city, Kendrick Lamar. But unlike Lamar, Staples has little interest in empathy. Where Lamar depicts his Compton as a community of people struggling to do their best, Staples’ slums are presented in the same sensational light the media portrays them in, as irredeemable cesspools of junkies, killers, and corpses. Staples is too desensitized to humanize his subjects the way Lamar does, and if that can make him seem unlikable, so be it—he delights in pushing buttons, anyway. He opens “Señorita,” a five-alarm banger built around a chest-beating Future sample, with a shot at one of rap’s most sacred cows, curtly declaring “Fuck ya dead homies.” Elsewhere he shows disregard for his own bottom line when he admonishes the white fans who make up a considerable chunk of his audience. “All these white folks chanting when I ask them ‘Where my niggas at,’” he raps, “Going crazy, got me going crazy, I can’t get with that / Wonder if they know I know they won’t go where we kick it at?”
Summertime ’06 is a triumph not just for Staples, who has never sounded this engaging, but also for executive producer No I.D., who takes big risks behind the boards. Balancing his pop instincts with the more avant tendencies of internet-age rap, he favors taut, subverted club grooves that play up the springy nihilism in Staples’ voice, but allows room for some thrilling detours. Along with co-producer DJ Dahi and singer James Fauntleroy, he channels Outkast’s skewed, barrelhouse soul on “C.N.B.,” while he brings the first disc to a crescendo on “Jump Off The Roof,” a feverish gospel number that matches the drama of his collaborations with Kanye West.
In its second half, Summertime ’06 stretches out with looser, more relaxed production, but even at its warmest, a sense of unease pervades. Staples refuses to lets the listener get comfortable; his voice is always poking, prodding, and needling. He’s got a lifetime of grievances built up, and he makes damn sure the listener’s paying attention as he vents every last one.