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Vince Staples Sails The Stormy Seas Of Today’s Rap Scene

On the scene at the Long Beach rapper’s Life Aquatic tour

Vince Staples ain't so lost in the sauce that he'd ever forget the burial sites riddling Ramona Park. Summertime ’06, the Long Beach rapper's 2015 debut, was a love/hate letter to his hometown's harrowing history, penned under the spiritual guidance of Staples's 13-year old self. "It was a confusing, frustrating time for us all," he said in a Fact interview around the album's release. "We were still young but trying to be adults at a very young age." Vince, now 23, maintains his frustrated musical persona even if his concerns have widened and deepened over time. His current Life Aquatic tour — named after Wes Anderson's kooky 2004 revenge story — drops us back in Ramona Park, but quickly plunges into deep-sea histories where algae-covered skeletons reanimate and ruminate on what it means to breathe underwater.

The best rap shows feel transportive, using the tools of language, image, timbre, and stage presence to create a sense of existential, multidimensional movement. As fans entered the performance space of Philadelphia's Union Transfer venue on Monday, March 27, they caught scenes from the tour's namesake film in reverse motion — foreshadowing not only the way the show itself manipulated time and space, but also the way Vince's playfulness can turn the disenchanted fervor that boils in his music into a kind of parody. If this seems like a contradiction, get privy to the fact that skinfolk laugh instead of cry just to get by all the damn time. What might be mistaken for a wink, a toothy grin, or a cynical joke often has more to do with mourning.

The first words in his set reverberated through the floors: "Is it real?" A prerecorded vocal drop floated in the musky air until we could make out his silhouette in the darkness.

Onstage, surrounded by images of perilous seas, skeletons, and dollar signs, Vince seemed to be drowning under the reality-altering signage of American consumerism. No doubt influenced by the gangbanging lifestyle that rap music helped him leave behind, Vince is used to deconstructing myths and symbols. The set jumped off with a breathless performance of "3230," a song that paints Long Beach in grim detail: "Hittin' corners, thuggin' with the blower, barrel louder than a motor / Keep the engine runnin' when a nigga run up on ya / Another day in sunny California." Vince's tone rang out in CD-quality as he sped through the song's two-verse blitzkrieg.

If he isn't already a favorite among punk aficionados, then following up the neighborhood nihilism of "3230" with the grunge-ish "Smile" — from last year's Prima Donna — might be just what the headbangers need. Brash, heavy, and saturated in regret, "Smile" doubles as a showcase of Vince's adroit flow, as well as his first move away from the West Coast and toward the ocean floor of his inner consciousness: "I turned my back on my friends / I turned my back on my home / I left the street where I've grown / To chase the yellow brick road."

At the end of that road awaited the images of hellfire and brimstone that percolate behind the bass drops of his 2014 anthem "Fire." Want a bunch of high schoolers in Sixers jerseys over ugly-ass gray hoodies to go apeshit? Just admit that, like them, you're "probably going to hell anyway," and observe the mosh commence. Vince, with his literary and musical fascination with death, pressed just the right buttons for the mostly harmless bunch to pop right off.

Later, the largely white audience — a surprising fact, given how black AF Philly is — got up for the song in which Vince spits, "All these white folks chanting when I ask them where my niggas at / Goin' crazy, got me goin' crazy, I can't get with that." To be fair, "Lift Me Up" is a banger for reasons beyond any racial categorization. For me, at least, the song awakens a need to interrogate who deserves my blackity-black energy; how to best determine the value of my work in a whitened, commodified world; and the need for my work to be both externally appreciated and self-edifying. For many of my black friends who listened to Summertime ’06, "Lift Me Up" was a highlight because it spoke to legitimate concerns that we have regarding appropriation ("I feel like, fuck Versace, they raping niggas' pockets / And we don't get acknowledged / Just thank me for the profit"), gentrification ("Uber driver in the cockpit, look like Jeffrey Dahmer / But he lookin' at me crazy when we pull up to the projects"), and the seemingly contradictory desires for both capital and political change ("Fight between my conscience and the skin that's on my body, man / I need to fight the power but I need that new Ferrari").

With the energy reaching one of several peaks at "Lift Me Up," it was only a matter of time for the high to wear off. Vince wandered aimlessly around the stage during mid-song break beats, and performed "Lemme Know," "Birds & Bees," and "Loca" with a more stoic posture. He'd hang close to the microphone during these numbers, leaving the heavy lifting to the audience and his backing tracks. The empty spaces under the songs' booming bass and brood-and-doom synths were quickly filled with chants, stomps, and hoots, even if the artist himself didn't seem totally tuned in. Sometimes it's more comforting to vibe out to the vast ocean of sound and let others do the paddling for you.

Vince retook the wheel of his ship on "Big Time," jumping all across the stage in self-celebratory bliss, as if the hydraulic systems keeping his world afloat ran on sweat. There are few artists to compare with Vince's unique approach to rap. Not too many popular rappers have shown the willingness to get buck on dark house and punk electricity. Even his peers, from Earl Sweatshirt to GoldLink, don't match his level of lived-in, inexhaustible cynicism. The closest we can get to a corollary rests in the interdimensional point between hip-hop and basketball, where fellow Californian Russell Westbrook's kinetic playing and off-court quips inspire near-irrational levels of admiration. Westbrook is a vengeful Steve Zissou in his own way, out for payback against the squad that stole his friend and teammate Kevin Durant, even if the whole league has to pay the price. Vince records and performs with a similar dominant, magnetic power, while signaling to the audience (through the images and his aimlessness) that he’s still having fun.

This balance, for me, is what assuages any concerns about how a white or privileged audience member might receive his work. Vince writes from the bleak hold of the American ship, where vengeance, life-comforting humor, and bodily funk bubble beneath the boot of an oppressive class. What comes out of that journey is a sound and disposition that feels encompassing and forward-thinking. In the closing part of his show in Philly, Vince pulled out his recent flashpoint single, “BagBak,” whose Detroit house beat acts as a vehicle for the artist to shoot the shit on how the future is going to be won: “We need Tamikas and Shaniquas in that Oval Office / Obama ain’t enough for me, we only gettin' started / The next Bill Gates can be on Section 8 up in the projects / So till they love my dark skin / Bitch, I’m goin' all in.” Kudos to the kid for anchoring down on the mission to make rap equitable again. Now we’re just waiting for the b-boys, b-girls, headbangers, and punk voyeurs to hit the cresting wave.