Vince Staples / Boogie
Summertime '06 / The Reach
(Def Jam / Self-released; 2015)
By Chet Betz | 21 July 2015
Rap is the fucking best. No, it’s not you, indie rock. Not you, alternative country, stop it. Whatever Fetty Wap is, hell no. Nah, it’s rap, it’s hip-hop, it’s this. And, after years on loop, “this” has begun to evolve beyond the radio-driven aesthetic trends of crunk, then Kanye, then trap, then Drake, next probably Kanye again. There is a veritable hotbed of burbling-up blood going on in the West Coast water right now; ghosts of Dr. Dre’s former self, Snoop Dogg’s never self, and the crystallized moment of a track like the Pack’s “Vans” are imps that years ago cracked something somewhere deep down below California—Odd Future was like the hiss of a fart escaping the opening fissure, now here comes the eruption. Magma like manna, though, fishscale rap putting the rest of the music world on notice. We’re halfway through 2015 and let’s already call this a banner year for the genre. Kendrick Lamar dropped a stone-cold classic, Main Attrakionz & Friendzone smoked the sublime, Rae Sremmurd were probably born or something, and now Boogie and Vince Staples are here to push the paradigm, the next level of rap content married to a refinement of the musical form. It’s a gift, a miracle, a true blessing. Also, as always, fuck you, Drake.
Vince Staples’ LP debut Summertime ‘06 cracks like a shot fired across the bow of rap complacency. He slinked the outskirts of SoCal rap, he snuck, he crept, now he’s here, Ye-mentor No I.D. the primary production force behind Staples’ tribunal announcement. All our sides get blinded. There’s that crack on the opening intro, that shot, then the chilling loop that’s probably a synth dreaming of being an electric guitar, leading to “Lift Me Up.” And “Lift Me Up” scrawls its words on your brain with irradiated ink, Staples lazily, fiercely biting then masticating his simple, brilliant writtens. No I.D. brings the same stealthy bombast (“3230” almost perversely marginalizes a gorgeous synth trill harmony) that he’d be known for if he was known, the delightful sonic subterfuge that Yeezy decided to use as a cornerstone for bloated, gassy grandeur. On “Lift Me Up” the bass chortles, the organ wheels, the drums flex dutifully. Vince peers through the haze of his systemically strangled life, seeking salvation, asking “Can a motherfucker breeeathe…” Rhetorically. Your brain searches for a response, keeps circling back to “seminal,” “haunting,” “fire,” and “fuck you, Drake.” The music’s authority finalizes with the coda, a reverberating chime tolling your obeisance. Welcome to the kingdom. Rap rules everything inside thee.
Clams Casino makes some extremely key contributions to the project, including the album centerpiece “Summertime” and the incorrigible bleat of “Norf Norf.” The first listen to “Norf Norf” is one of cognitive dissonance, Staples’ pushing his flow into the upper-register realm of a slight, vinegar-y unpleasantness, not unlike Danny Brown’s weirdest self but a bit more natural. The fiftieth listen to “Norf Norf” is one of unquenchable addiction, signifying the record’s first touchstone of the realization that rap has a new voice, distinct and potent—this is a rare and precious feeling for a rap fan. Excuse us if we savor it a little too obnoxiously. Pardon us as we hitch our epistemology to a few bars, marry our feelings to a loop, look at you with blank deafness because, like, headphones. But it’s not just in the sound, the form, the phenomenon of the big, lean shape of one hour, twenty tracks, everything ill—a perfection of the double-sided structure of Brown’s Old (2013) with a more eclectic yet cohesive sweep (i.e. the plain trap of “Senorita“ slips with ease into a trip-hop coda; “Like It Is“ grafts together boom-bap and videogame noises; “C.N.B.” is categorically cold as fuck; through it all, Staples a natural born chameleon). No, heathens, it’s in the gospel.
Staples intentionally plays with contradiction and contrast better than any new rapper other than Danny Brown and does it more subtly than him. Nas did this classically, Kanye did this spastically, but Vince does it with elasticity, an utter seamlessness to the triptych of id, ego, and superego on display. Thug life’s exercised in its necessity on the exhilarating run of “Get Paid” and the sultry Sleeping Vishnu pose of “Dopeman” (wherein No I.D. waves at SpaceGhostPurrp), lamented in its dissolution on tracks like the record closer and the sad crooning and distorted voice-mails of “Might Be Wrong,” confessing an inadmissible culpability to whatever degree our actions condemn themselves. Even on “Get Paid” you see the ice grill of knowledge, Desi Mo bitterly winking that “money is the means of control.”
Staples’ treatment of women is probably even more fascinating, a bawdy revel in genre with quick stabs of sharp deconstruction, like Camille Paglia annotating The Witcher 3. Sequentially: “Norf Norf” objectifies stylishly (“Where the ladies at, where the hoes, where the bitches / Every real nigga know the difference”); “Birds & Bees” laughs hollowly with the thought of procreation juxtaposed against the depravity of an inner city that breeds stray-bullet-fodder (“I shot your child, so what, you know we wildin’ after dark”); “Loca” swishes straight lust ‘round its mouth, decides it likes the taste (“Late night but the face right, I need it”). It’s something like the leering rap gallery we know too well, women barely more than naked concepts—but aware of itself. These three tracks set up “Lemme Know,” which could be a Maxinquaye (1995) outtake and forges a partnership between Staples and “it” girl of the moment Jhene Aiko, detailing how it’s really “post” to be, the reality of two human beings working in tandem, outlining the parameters, goals, and hopes for their attraction. The simplicity of Aiko’s constant presence on the track is its own eloquence but then you have lyrics in Staples’ rap citing a sudden desire created for babies and mortgages. Aiko has the final word and it’s full of finesse; suitably, since finesse is how Staples likes all his paradoxes parlayed.
Clinking cow-bell epic “Jump off the Roof” captures in its hook the realness Staples tries to found: “Pray to God cuz I need Him, I need Him / Cocaine withdrawals and I’m fiendin’ / I’m fiendin’,” the titular lyric conflating partying with subconscious suicide. The other half of telling it “Like It Is” on the album closer is telling it “how it could be.” Vince cruises down the road of cause and effect, “The police kill us / So we make up our own law,” trying to find a new path, an exit, a highway, a higher way: “I got to be, I got to be, I got to be the one / To make it up to heaven, despite the things I’ve done.” But “no matter what we grow into / we never gonna escape our past.” This coming from a 22-year-old rapper on his debut. Sometimes the old can’t speak the most raw form of truth. Shit, how Hov has tried, working himself up into a slovenly huff. Nas, too, and boy, the African history lessons and savior complexes we did get; but the old guard are often entrenched in a rhetoric from which they can’t escape, held down by the premise of a battle they can’t see has moved to a different plain. Sometimes it’s the kid, the product of the zeitgeist or simply striding in pace with the evolutionary present, sometimes it’s this spirit that—when willing to speak from its own depth of feeling, no matter the limit of its experience—that is most connected to the malleable, changing, growing nature of truth. Sometimes wisdom belongs to the young.
Boogie is 25. Last year’s Thirst 48 was an idyllic blast of “real” conscious rap, equal parts soothing and subversive to its culture. Like Staples, Boogie is fully invested in reinventing the rap concept of realness; this investment—when placed in an environment where Boogie gets shot because of his color (“Oh My” converts that tale into an anthem worthy of A-grade T.I.) while witnessing people of his color shooting each other—bleeds out a deepening sadness, a darkness flitting around the corners of Boogie’s eyes, a shadow that engulfs most of sophomore follow-up The Reach to leave its warm glimmers of goodness sounding like a struggle to purchase some kind of solid ground, some way to stand. Producer Keyel is responsible for the lion’s share of the music, draping the tracks in neon keys, reassuring samples, velvet of night. But there are moments where the bass-end threatens to drown Boogie out when he’s trying to rap his hardest truths; Willie B-produced “First Evergreen“ has a queasy pulse firing into your gut when Boogie spits “gang bangin’” out of his mouth like a foul memory that he has to relive too often. So, the effect of the music on The Reach is both mellifluous and unsettling. Boogie is young but he sounds like an old soul reincarnated unto freshness, here to peel back your eyelids so you can see his life, dreams, and nightmares clearly, but just like him wondering which is which. Are our eyes, in fact, still closed? Is progress a lie? To run a race on a hamster wheel. Or not to be.
The opener and title track describes the extent to which Boogie is reaching, his passion straining against the beatific music. On “Intervention” Boogie admits he needs some help with his feelings, sickened by his people “turnt / backwards.” Over a backwards loop on the tragic “Further” Boogie proclaims that “the cycle ain’t broke” and his poignant verses are couched in news clips detailing the death of a 6-year-old from a gang shot meant for her father. On the second verse he tells how he had to step to someone in front of his kid, driven by a fear that eats itself and feeds hate, births death; Boogie’s forced to stoke danger in order to guarantee respect and by extension a future for his son (elsewhere on the tape, a recording of Boogie’s son has him praying to God to keep his daddy out of trouble). The hook of “Further” aches, “I keep reachin’ for the clouds / and they just keep movin’ further / and further…” On “Make Me Over” Boogie turns psalmist, pleading for divine deliverance, physical and spiritual, over a sweetly wrenching vocal loop. Later, he searches for some kind of emotional refuge in relationship on “Find Me” and “Found You.”
The proverbial search for answers leads to the answer as proverb, an aphoristic epiphany in closer “Change” where Boogie first states that “everything is bad,” then voice breaks under the weight of his vivid rap decrying that badness, “Learned to recognize an ocean full of lies / When the women I was strokin’ had no hope up in their eyes / While that nigga’s still floatin’ cuz that boat done just arrived / Niggas dead up on the land, look at the vultures in the sky / Uh, dried-out feelings,” before he finds his wisdom: “These the moments that I cry / No, these the moments I rise to the truth / Lookin’ in the sky to God for my proof / Then I think to myself / I thank God I’m the proof / I thank God I’m…” It’s the “Man in the Mirror,” actualized. What better way for this message to fall on us then over the cycles of loops of hip-hop, the inexorable streaming of rap, words unfettered and spilling off the pages they’ve been delegated? Rap is the fucking best.
But where rap might have risen out of struggle and people like Nas and Hov seeking a reclamation, a reparation, a materialist manifest destiny, their own Kingdom Come (2006)—and much of rap is that still, or is just feckless miscreants like Rich Homie Quan, Tyga, and the like—Vince Staples and Boogie symbolize a turning of rap inward to face itself as honestly as possible, to acknowledge even on a track called “Change” that cycles are never broken, that struggle and pain and injustice will persist until the end of time. Time will start again and carry that dark seed with it, and we are all responsible for that, we’re all guilty…but it’s only within one’s own clutch that a moment can be held and endure: here is your utopia, your paradise, your faith. You reach to the future (as Boogie does on his title track, “Further,” and “Change”) or the past (e.g. Staples’ summer of 2006) to pull some ideal into the now, for it to be experienced in some small fraction, a scent of the kingdom, rap ruling in perpetuity because rap is your soul’s ghost in the mind’s machine. Rap digs at the brain’s entrails to find the trigger by which you can believe and act out of that belief, speaking in tongues, an avalanche of words that are really all just one Word. In “Summertime” Vince intones that this “could be forever, baby / this could be forever, maybe,” an ephemeral moment of total love that inevitably falls apart, and now we curse entropy like it’s Drake. “My feelings tell me love is real / but feelings normally get you killed,” says Vince, knowing even so that the feeling outlives the feeler. Boogie says that he knows change is gonna come but that change is just part of the cycle. Yet there is a moment in the cycle that gets to repeat, the grace note of the sample that eternity loops, and it is this moment that makes change essential, because change brings you back to where things stay the same. This one moment within where everything was, is, and will be good. We can’t go back and we will forever go back, thank God. Rap is the fucking best—now perhaps as much as ever, for it’s beginning to speak fluently the dubious, contradictory, ineffable language of hope.