Exactly one month after the murder of Michael Brown, Vince Staples released “Hands Up,” a single from his debut EP Hell Can Wait. A breathless excoriation of police logic, the track became, for many, a furious précis of the ongoing news from Ferguson, Missouri. With its shrewd appropriation of the protest’s rallying cry (“put your hands in the air”), and its prediction of the state’s wrongful exoneration of a racist cop (“I ain’t seen them lock a swine up yet”), it was easy to see why the song was bannered by some as “the best musical response to Ferguson yet” — its sermonic intensity alone was enough to stir the convictions of a thousand fellow travelers.
Only, as Staples later pointed out, “Hands Up” was not a response to the events in Ferguson. It was instead a microscopically detailed examination of black life in Long Beach, California, one of many such examples in Staples’ rapidly building discography. That the world described in “Hands Up” mirrored a reality that was “new” for white Americans — and therefore “newsworthy” — was nothing more than an example, perhaps, of what Chris Rock has described as the (slow) becoming “not crazy” of white America. Or at least it was proof of a stark divide in American life. For white people schooled in the unsubtle art of liberal piety, police brutality is a shocking affront to universal values; for Staples, state-sanctioned police violence is a fact of life unworthy of sentimentality. Of the lives memorialized in “Hands Up” — two young men who were killed in 2013, under suspicious circumstances, by California police — Staples reserves only an exacting prologue: “Deangelo Lopez and Tyler Woods / Just a couple they gunned down around the hood.”
This week, Staples released his debut album, a double-sided near-masterpiece that extends and intensifies his unsentimental vision of life in Long Beach. Titled Summertime ‘06, the album is a bildungsroman, a coming-of-age narrative about Staples’ life during his middle school years, which he describes as climacteric that brought him face-to-face with gang life, violence, sexual maturity, and the psychological collapse of his caregivers. Tied together with perfectly unforgiving production by No I.D. (as well as Clams Casino and others), Summertime ‘06 is pessimistic, claustrophobic, stone-faced, deterministic almost to the point of fatalism, and politically just without being righteous. In substance, it splits a debt between Kendrick Lamar’s Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City and older staples like Public Enemy or N.W.A., the latter of which it references with track titles like “Dopeman.”
To my mind, too, Summertime ‘06 represents one of rap’s most convincing stabs at what literature calls naturalism. Beyond workaday realism, naturalism presents, as Staples does, a closed, pessimistic universe that relies on precision narratives of communitarian struggle. In its day, too, literary naturalism was also ruthlessly Darwinian; it saw life — especially life spent in poverty — as a cruel extension of natural selection. In exactly the same way, Staples describes survival in Long Beach as a mirthless fight between “crabs in a bucket”:
That’s somebody’s son but a war to be won
Baby either go hunt or be hunted
We crabs in a bucket, he called me a crab
So I shot at him in front of the Douglas
The politics of naturalism are the politics of communitarian survival. (You might just call them — following Pro Era’s Occupy-driven anthem — survival tactics.) And as an extension of a community, these politics are local. They eschew broad-based abstractions and overarching narratives in favor of minute observation. Staples knows that college in the 21st century is debt-driven idiocy, for example, because he’s seen countless students rack up debt without arriving at gainful employment — not because he read an infographic in The Atlantic. Staples has tried repeatedly to convey this communitarian logic to interviewers. This week he just came out and said it:
All these things originated as pieces of a community, and the community got destroyed. When that happens, people scramble and try to hold on to the last of what they had. The last of what we had was each other. It’s not a sense of, “I want to be a criminal, so I’m gonna find out where this gang is at and go hang out with them.” No, these are community-based things that are here with or without us.
One consequence of observing life as a series of immutable, natural laws is that you can veer dangerously close to fatalism; one of the triumphs of Staples music is that he never caves. (His moments of optimism, although exceedingly rare, are some of the most satisfying in all of rap.) Nor does he provide any easy answers. “How does it stop?” he asked recently in The Fader. “If we knew how it would stop, it would stop. I know that no one really wants to go to jail for life.”
If some listeners bristle at the deterministic vision offered on Summertime ‘06 — one that, like any closed universe, plays out an eternal return of the same frustrations — they might consider why thousands of listeners thought “Hands Up” was about Ferguson. Or they might wonder why we expect different answers to the same questions. Take, for example, Staples interview in Vulture this week, and its startling similarity to the LA Times’ 1995 interview with Tupac, just after his release from prison.
Tupac, from 20 years ago:
So why is gangbanging and violence so often the focus of your music?
What I want to know, though, is why all of a sudden is everybody acting like gangs are some new phenomenon in this country? Almost everyone in America is affiliated with some kind of gang. We got the FBI, the ATF, the police departments, the religious groups, the Democrats and the Republicans. Everybody’s got their own little clique and they’re all out there gangbanging in their own little way.
Staples, this week:
Your album reflects on a time when you were involved with the Crips…
But of course I don’t think it’s good to be a criminal, but that has nothing to do with being from where you’re from. We don’t think anything of it when you want to be a Democrat or a Republican, but those things also hurt people, and on a much larger scale. We’re not waging wars on entire countries and causing famines and pain when we take from people.
Some will regard this startling reiteration of Tupac’s statement as a sign that Staples is a reincarnation of the better days in hip-hop. Maybe. But it more likely bolsters his version of life in American communities as stagnant, violent, and changeless. Though, listening to Summertime ‘06 — an album that misses no opportunity to subtract the bullshit from rap’s Blueprint — it seems that, finally, something has changed.