Vince Staples review – big fish of rap hooks leaping crowd

Kentish Town Forum, London
The LA rapper cuts his hypnotic choruses with racial commentary while flinging about the stage with enough energy to inspire the mosh pit

It’s rare to find a club-ready rapper who cites Joy Division and David Bowie as influences, but then, Vince Staples is a rare kind of rapper. With a prolific release schedule that has seen the 23-year-old Californian release six wildly disparate album-length projects in the space of five years (two of which were produced by long-time Kanye West collaborator No ID), Staples has deliberately emulated Bowie’s habit of reinvention by refusing to make anything close to the same record twice. The result is back-to-back albums that have – for better or worse – relentlessly pushed forward, wilfully switching between weird, sluggish guitars, dancefloor electronica and glistening hip-hop.

Watch the video for Big Fish

Tonight, for a rowdy, hyped-up London crowd, Staples forgets the deviations and delivers the hits. It’s a gloriously no-frills set. Silhouetted against a washed-out orange-red screen – one of his few concessions to production – he carries an hour-long show single-handed. Predominantly drawing on his two most accessible works, the Def Jam albums released in 2015 and 2017, Staples brings a mix of euphoria and cynicism that has the youthful crowd in a state of near-permanent mosh pit.

His scope is displayed in the opening track, the deceptive party anthem Party People, which flicks from faux-dumb choruses of: “Party people I like to see you dance” to bleak verses that note: “I see black cats on the daytime news / With handcuffed wrists and their skin turned blue.” This is Staples to a T; good-time couplets parroted from the lexicon of old skool hip-hop undercut by jagged bursts of racial reality. On the stage, Staples matches this dichotomy with a physicality that burns hot and cold; flinging his limbs out and leaping the stage like a gleeful, vindictive sprite, before standing limp, vulnerable and alone in the blank glare of the lights.

Physicality … Vince Staples leaps about the stage.
Physicality … Vince Staples leaps about the stage. Photograph: Burak Cingi/Redferns

Tracks from current record Big Fish Theory prove to be hugely popular, their skittering drum’n’bass clearly indebted to 90s UK rave. In particular, the clacking two-step of Crabs in the Bucket manages to sound like Mike Skinner reconfigured for Hollywood. But it’s on cuts drawn from the booming rap of his earlier work that Staples really delivers.

“Fight between my conscience / and the skin that’s on my body, man,” he agonises on Lift Me Up as the set draws to a close. “I need to fight the power / but I need that new Ferrari, man.”

If the moshing crowd are phased by this contradiction between materialism and conscience they don’t show it for a moment. Staples surveys them, his body a momentary comma of mournful calm, before he flings himself back into the party.


Ian McQuaid

The GuardianTramp

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