Vince Staples currently occupies an intriguing and almost unique space within hip-hop. He’s become successful – big enough to get an endorsement deal with Sprite, to be asked for his grooming tips by GQ magazine, and that his fourth album comes bound up with the announcement of his own Netflix show – without actually having had a major hit. His most successful album, 2017’s Big Fish Theory, briefly scraped the lower reaches of the US Top 20; his 2015 single Norf Norf went gold without making the charts.
Perhaps that’s part of his plan. In a genre usually obsessed with success and the status it brings, he’s claimed to be uninterested in either: “Don’t go diamond [sell 10m copies] and you’ll be fine,” he told an interviewer who asked about his ambitions early on in his career. “You’ll have a regular life.”
You’re also likely to get more artistic wriggle room than someone charged with following up a multimillion-selling hit, something Staples has used to his advantage, chopping and changing his sound with each new release. His debut, Summertime 06, was shadowy and dark; Big Fish Theory was audibly influenced by Detroit techno and saw him collaborating with Sophie and Australian dance producer Flume; 2018’s FM! crammed 11 tracks into 20 minutes, presented itself like a radio show and kept wilfully short-circuiting the listener, not least when Staples ceded the microphone entirely to Tyga and Earl Sweatshirt, then cut their tracks short.
The message that Staples isn’t going to do what people expect him to has rung out pretty clear – when a video of a white Christian mother attacking his lyrics as “filth” went viral, Staples rushed to her defence and chastised fans attacking her – and the stylistic alterations continue on his eponymous fourth album. Produced by Kenny Beats, whose intriguing résumé takes in everything from Gucci Mane to Idles to Ed Sheeran, it mirrors FM!’s brevity – again, it’s just a shade over 20 minutes long – but sounds noticeably different.
The eerie electronic tones of FM!’s Run the Bands or Don’t Get Chipped are largely replaced by music that feels hazy and relaxed, more obviously inspired by 90s G-funk and its characteristic repurposing of old soul. Staples has always been open about his west coast musical inspirations – “if this was 88, would have signed to Ruthless” he suggested eight years ago, during his guest appearance on Earl Sweatshirt’s debut album, “94, would have had ’em walking down Death Row” – even if they haven’t always been audible in his sound. Here, Sundown Town and Taking Trips feel like G-funk tracks viewed through a fog or a distorting lens. The samples are muffled and warped, vocals sped up to squeaky chipmunk frequencies or slowed into incomprehensible sonic gloop. There’s a very pop melody lurking within opener Are You With That, and a gorgeous vocal by TikTok-boosted alt-soul singer Fousheé on Take Me Home, but the album is almost devoid of obvious hooks or choruses, the music there largely as a backdrop for Staples’ voice.
The rapper has suggested the album is his most personal to date, hence the title; this time around, the interludes are provided not by his fellow rappers, but his mum, talking about her anger issues and an old friend, recounting the grim story of a party that Staples luckily declined to attend and which turned bloodily violent. In the past, his lyrics have hardly shied away from his troubled upbringing in North Long Beach, California, but here he seems consumed by it. “When I see my fans I’m too paranoid to shake their hands,” he says on Sundown Town, while Law of Averages offers a litany of distrust, born out of the disparity between the environment he grew up in and the one he now inhabits. He’s extremely good at drawing the former in a matter-of-fact, conversational tone that emphasises what he’s describing isn’t exceptional, but everyday – “don’t get murdered” he mutters at the opening of The Shining, as if reminding you to pick up groceries on your way home – and good, too, at throwing the listener off. Taking Trips sounds relaxed and summery, its synth line lazily spiralling upwards, but its mood, if not its subject, is at odds with the lyrics: “Can’t even hit the beach without my heaters in my trunks … this summer sucks.” “I’m a real beach boy,” Staples offers drily on Are You With That?, a knowing reference to a band who defined a certain kind of white California utopia and who grew up in Hawthorne, 20 minutes’ drive from his home town. “Come round my way.”
He still seems as diffident about big commercial success as ever – “fuck a mansion” he snaps at one point. But then, you can’t really blame him. Vince Staples is idiosyncratic and really impressive, the sound of someone walking their own path, uncoupled from current trends, shifting and changing as they go. You leave it keen to hear what his next album – apparently already completed – holds. The space he’s created for himself isn’t a bad place to be.
• Vince Staples is released 9 July.
What Alexis listened to this week
Abel Ray – Last Exit To Transkei
A mid-tempo, fabulously atmospheric, vaguely Balearic chug from Morocco-based producer Abel Ray.