Vince Staples disappears inside of himself on self-titled album

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - OCTOBER 25: Rapper Vince Staples attends the REVOLT & AT&T Summit on Octob...
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The new, self-titled album from Vince Staples is so slight it barely exists. It’s about as long as a network sitcom episode once you strip out the commercials; it’s almost precisely the same length as his 2016 project Prima Donna, which was marketed as an EP. And yet the record’s name and its cover — a stark close-up of the artist’s face in faded black-and-white — suggest a major statement, or at least a notably personal one. This is both true and not; the aesthetic choices Vince makes do some of that heavy thematic lifting by implication, but also have a slightly narcotic effect. And so, despite its sometimes bracing content, the album’s near-uniform calm lulls the listener into a false sense of security — then leaves him there, declining to ambush an easy target.

Though still just 28 years old, Staples has been one of the most exciting rappers on the West Coast for a full decade. His early music was confrontational: In the very first verse on 2014’s Shyne Coldchain Vol. 2, Vince threatens to “murder God” and calls Obama a “house n----.” But his flirtations with shock rap were more than eclipsed by the frank way he rendered his upbringing in North Long Beach. These notes from his past could be jarring for their simplicity (“My mama cried the day I got put on the hood”) or for the way they blended the tragic with a comic sensibility that would later make him a media darling (see the way he recalls violent scenes that happened “back when Common had you tryin’ to read Qu’rans and go to college”).

While he began accruing fans — in L.A. County and across the internet, by virtue of his alignment with Odd Future — from the very beginning, it was the wrenching 2014 track “Nate” that codified this style. Named after his father, it delivers often horrifying biographical details from a wistful distance — one that the listener is free to read as acquitting Nate or indicting Vince. This tonal sophistication made Vince uniquely incisive when, for example, he ended the video for the single from his studio debut by underlining the white gaze that is inextricable from the industry surrounding rap music.

All of this could explain why Def Jam made an artist so allergic to the melodic bent that dominated rap radio in the early- and mid-2010s a label priority. His first proper album, 2015’s Summertime ‘06, was overseen by No I.D., the legendary Chicagoan (who made his name, perhaps ironically, through his production for Common). Summertime ‘06 makes nominal gestures to long-running L.A. County rap traditions, but for the most part imagines Vince’s world as an industrial wasteland, its beats steely, unforgiving, full of negative space for his nervy voice to barrel through. This yielded what is still Vince’s best song and most staggering vocal display: “Norf Norf,” whose third verse is acrobatic in a way that is totally secondary to the menace and wit of its writing.

Summertime ‘06 was adored by critics but had a middling run on the Billboard 200, barely cracking the top 40. Each Vince Staples project since then has seemed tangential to the last. His sophomore album, 2017’s now-underrated Big Fish Theory, sounds sort of like you’re being rained on between a cab and nightclub entrance in Berlin; FM!, from the year following, uses a drive-time radio concept and production from the reformed EDM producer Kenny Beats to approximate the popular rap of the moment. (Kenny Beats handles Vince Staples in its entirety, though with far less verve or color.) From the Shyne Coldchain volumes on, Vince had experimented with disparate musical styles, but until the last five years those asides seemed to be orbiting a major work, or at least dominant style, at the center. A generous reading of his new album says that this new album locates it, and it’s simply gentler, quieter than anyone imagined. A harsher one says that that center is more obscured than ever.

Most of Vince Staples is laconic and restrained, Vince’s voice stripped of the animation that marked his earlier songs. At points this suggests a deep inner life that is being mined in new ways, the half-whisper the emotional equivalent of not looking directly at the sun; at others it makes the record play like an afterthought, its vaguer lines closer to cliche than they might be on paper. Occasionally this gives a song the effect of snapping in and out of focus. “Sundown Town” opens lazily, then locks in: “I could die tonight/So today I’m finna go get paid/I’m the violent type/So don’t play, unless you want your grave” feels completely rote, but gives way to tantalizingly specific detail, like the name of the grocery chain Vince’s family would steal food from during their leanest times. But just as often, that moment of lucidity never comes. Songs like “Taking Trips” are so understated as to take lines that reflect long-running themes in Vince’s work (“I don’t got no one to trust”) and make them sound like borrowed maxims he only half-believes.

Vince is the rare rapper whose most difficult, most technical passages are delivered with an apparent ease, but who sounds too deliberate —or worse, disengaged — when he takes his foot off the pedal a bit. There are times he successfully evades that quicksand, like the single “Law of Averages,” whose relaxed pace allows Vince to find new crevices in the beat. But much of Vince Staples seems to be happening underwater, both musically and emotionally. All of which should make it unsurprising that the record’s strongest song by far is its closer, “Mhm,” which turns the album’s soft greys to sharp blacks and whites.

That song features the album’s most energetic vocal takes; the urgency matches that which is baked into the writing. And its hook — the song’s title is exactly what you think it is, a bemused mm-hmm — accesses the sneering-at-the-camera irreverence that makes the best Vince Staples songs so irresistible. Though maybe not quite so dramatic a break, it recalls another conspicuously brief album by a No I.D. protege: Kanye West’s Yeezus. Where that LP drags the listener through the Paris Fashion Week hell of Kanye’s imagination for nine songs before evoking the warm soul tones of his early work with its tenth, Vince Staples punctures a slow, murky tranquility with an engaged closing cut. Perhaps the way “Mhm” suggests a gnawing dread that the rest of Vince Staples tries to subdue is intentional; perhaps it merely an artist arriving back where he works best.