People love handing Vince Staples a microphone.
This simple truth has guided Staples’ musical journey for the better part of a decade. From the first time he was handed the mic on Earl Sweatshirt’s debut mixtape to closing out the Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse soundtrack at the end of last year, his presence is ubiquitous by design. There’s something about Vince’s mixture of authenticity and approachability that makes Staples’ music uncharacteristically digestible for the vast majority of casual listeners.
But this landscape has proved to be a double-edged sword for Staples. In conversation with Zane Lowe back in 2016, he commented on how often the microphone is a vessel for exterior interests. “They want that line that’s going to get them a $10 raise,” he says. He’s not being hyperbolic — after all, we live in a universe where Staples’ Yelp reviews make music blog headlines.
Staples commented on this stark reality on 2017’s excellent Big Fish Theory. Over top of futuristic, experimental production, he discussed mental health, depression, and more generally, the feeling that no one is really listening. Staples draws comparisons between himself and the likes of River Phoenix and Amy Winehouse, talents taken far too soon in a losing struggle with the spotlight. In many ways, Staples’ struggle is compounded by the expectation that others hold for him, sharing stories of Long Beach gang violence with escapist festivalgoers for money.
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In typical Staples fashion, frustration around the issue peaked in the form of an unmissable single. Staples announced 2018’s “Get The Fuck Off My Dick” with a GoFundMe campaign, promising that, for the low price of $2 million, he would leave the spotlight and go away forever. The tongue-in-cheek gesture gave lightness to the otherwise grave message of the song. “You either lose your life or your persona,” he remarks. Combining the track with its real-life context, Staples set the stage for a new chapter: If no one wants to call the foul, then join up and win by their rules.
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Hence, Staples brings us to last year’s masterpiece. FM! takes its namesake from the running concept of the record, a typical Los Angeles morning listening to Big Boy’s Neighborhood on 92.3 KRRL. By Staples’ design, the legendary DJ guides us through a 22-minute journey of seeming normality: summertime bangers interspersed with ticket giveaways, radio skits, and teasers of brand-new music on the way.
But look beyond the picturesque morning drive, and you’ll see that for every warm, Californian vignette, Staples also visualizes the culture of gun and gang violence that goes largely untreated in the day-to-day bustle. The death and disappearance of friends is a normality in Staples’ sphere, as is the hovering eye of the prison system. Since the beginning, Staples’ narrative has been that his music and his reality are inseparable. But here, he shows us that the former wins out by the choice of the listener, unencumbered by the messy tethers of Staples’ own reality.
With his most subversive record yet, Staples challenges listeners to change the way we think about music consumption, and not just for himself. For every uncomfortable reality we hear on the radio that we might brush off, Staples asks what the true cost of our inaction is. No doubt, on the upcoming Smile, You’re on Camera tour, he’ll bring the party like he has every time before. But this time, he’ll share the paranoia lurking beneath our cultural consumption.