I could tell you what Vince Staples is eating for lunch, but we both agree that celebrity-profile trope is corny. There’s a lot in this world that Staples thinks is corny, but when we meet in downtown Manhattan on a June afternoon, he seems to be particularly peeved about the music industry. I can’t blame him. He’s only in New York City for the day, between a red-eye from Los Angeles, and another flight to London. And he’s spending his time answering a journalist’s questions, a thing he’s done hundreds of times in the past few years, and then doing a photo shoot. There are lot of things that have to be done in order to sell music that don’t involve music, and Staples isn’t particularly enthused.
“We expect niggas to make videos, to have merch, to have this whole aesthetic,” he tells me with palpable irritation. “When people start talking about these artists nowadays, music is the last thing you thinking about.”
He even quibbles with the way we describe musicians as “artists,” comparing the music industry to that of visual art, which he says he respects more. As he puts it, there are no museums for music—meaning that there are no institutions determining the rules for how music is consumed. Anyone can pay 99 cents for a song, or stream it on their service of choice, and feel ownership over it. With no one setting the rules, the work is subjected to everyone’s review, everyone’s opinion, everyone’s re-interpretation of the album art. The music is no longer about the music, but rather what the listener can project onto it. Or, as Staples says, “Everybody’s trying to put themselves in someone else’s picture.”
I don’t have the same level of reverence for the world of visual art—it’s difficult for me to totally respect any art form that deliberately tucks itself away for a highly selective audience that is determined by not much more than how deep your pockets are—but I understand his point. And that’s a big part of what makes Staples such a sought-after figure. Even when you disagree with him, his perspective is so well-considered and the power of his personality is so magnetic, he will win you over. He processes the world very quickly. His patience for stupidity is thinner than the gap between his two front teeth. His sense of humor is quintessentially black American, born out of that unique understanding of oppression while clocking the absurd logic of racism. A week after we first meet, in the green room before his recent appearance on “The Daily Show,” Staples is asked if he’s going to wear his eyeglasses on air. “Nah,” he replies, “can’t let The Man know you got a disability.”
This is the other thing that has every publication and talk show running to sit down with him. That quick wit impresses many and inspires comedy club-sized laughs. During his “Daily Show” interview, after rhapsodizing on topics as disparate as afrofuturism, the life expectancy rate of beta fish, and the thirst-quenching properties of Sprite, host Trevor Noah tells Staples that he’s the most interesting guest he’s ever had. But here the paradox of the 23-year-old’s celebrity is further cleaved: None of this has anything to do with the music.
Big Fish Theory, his second full-length studio album, is a natural extension of the sounds and themes explored on last year’s Prima Donna EP and its accompanying short film. That project had the young MC asking questions about the fragility of the spotlight he found himself thrust into after the success of his debut LP, Summertime ’06. On Big Fish Theory, he’s trying to embrace the spoils of success while navigating heartbreak, both in his romantic life and in the broader world, where blackness is still a death sentence.
At least, that’s my interpretation. You could come to your own conclusion about the meaning behind his music, and Staples would be completely fine with that. He isn’t here to determine your relationship to the music by providing explanations, a stance that would appear to contradict his art-world analogy. By declining to explain, he leaves it open for the listening audience to project their own views onto his work. But he’s steadfast in his separatism. At his core, he’s a purist—not the annoying “hip-hop was better in my day” kind, but rather someone who believes everyone should do their thing and not be required to play the role of artist, critic, and dealer. “My job is to make songs,” he says. “That’s my place. I create things. All the other stuff, I really don’t think about it at all.”
It’s not that he isn’t thoughtful, it’s just that he doesn’t want you to get the wrong impression. He isn’t a tortured artist with a song in his heart dying to get out. He’s a regular dude from Long Beach, California who also happens to be a supremely talented rapper. He has a lot of questions that he asks out of the blue, such as, “Do you think Fiji water is actually bottled at the source?” He would rather be back home shooting dice with the homies than explaining himself to white people who only care about his teenage life as a Crip. “I understand that I come off like a deep motherfucker,” he tells me over the lunch I still won’t describe, “but a lot of times depth is in simplistic things.”
Fair enough. But despite his protests to the contrary, Vince Staples has something to say—about black life in America, the music industry, media, art, sports, you name it—through his unmistakably SoCal accent.
Pitchfork: It seems like you don’t have a romantic relationship to rap culture, that you really do view this as a job.
Vince Staples: My question is: What’s the culture?
The music, the style, the people—making community around this.
That’s just being black, though. To me, the culture of black people is just [surviving] in the United States of America, because we don’t really have any kind of background past slavery that we know of as a majority, and we cling to different things to give us our identity. Right now, [hip-hop] is what it is, and it’s been like that for a minute. But all that “do it for the culture, do it for hip-hop” stuff is corny.
So you do view this as work.
It’s work for everybody. It’s demeaning to the whole experience of it to not know that it’s an obligation. I got responsibilities, that’s basically it. We not catching these flights and doing all these tours and investing all this money for nothing. It is a job for everybody, whether they want to say it or not. It ain’t easy to do. If it was easy, it wouldn’t be so significant that people are able to do it.
But is any part of it fun?
Yeah. I wouldn’t do nothing I didn’t want to do it. Ever. It’s cool. I appreciate it.
What parts do you enjoy?
All of it. You get to go places, to create things, and you get to make money off doing those two things. You get to feed your families. All of it is fun if you do it the right way. When people ask those questions, they don’t really be asking about music. They asking about all the other stuff. Music comes secondary, if not third or fourth, in how people look at artists. Well, not artists, rappers. Big difference.
What’s the other stuff people are asking about?
They want to know how much money you got, how famous you are, how cool you are, how successful you are in the commercial space. Nobody’s talking about the music, for the most part. It’s not really a conversation for many people.
There is a celebratory vibe to parts of Big Fish Theory, where you want to get people dancing, which feels new compared to a lot of what you’ve done so far. There’s a difference between a line like “I ain’t ever run from nothing but the police,” from 2015’s “Norf Norf,” and “I was up late night ballin’,” from “Big Fish.”
Yeah, but not really.
It’s the same mood. If you look at the songs as a whole, “Norf Norf” is more celebratory than “Big Fish” is. Both songs are hyphy music, but “Big Fish” is at a slower tempo, and there’s not as much energy in it. So it all depends on how you look at it. There are no wrong answers in this shit, you know? You do what you do.
You do present a tension between wanting to celebrate and almost feeling like you’re unable to completely embrace that part of it. There’s a lyric on the new song “Party People” where you’re like, “How am I supposed to have a good time when death and destruction is all I see.”
Yeah, I know what you mean. You can look at it that way. It gets tricky, because everything has an exact reason, but I’m never gonna say, “No, that’s not what it means.”
But what does that line mean to you? You created it.
Yeah, I know. In 10 years, when I’m washed up, I’m gonna come back with a book deal and we gonna explain all the albums and tell the story.
But now, this is my thing also: Do you consider music to be art?
There’s a difference between a legacy artist and a currently working artist, for the most part. I look at an album like an art exhibit, it’s like a solo show. You have different works that you’ve created, song one through song 12 is like painting one through painting 12, sculpture one through sculpture 12, whatever the fuck you want to call it, right? And then you present them all, you put them on the wall, and people gawk at it. That’s the point of an art show.
Now, when you see art on the wall, it’s [coming with] two to three things at the most. It has an artist’s name, the name of the piece, when it was created. If they dead, it has when they were born and when they died. Some things have explanation. Most things don’t.
So my question would be: Why, in music, is there a need for the artist to explain? I don’t know the answer to those questions; when you walk up to a canvas, you just start painting. You might have a general idea of the colors, of the composition, but certain things come as the process goes. So I don’t ever think into anything that deep. I never say, “I’m gonna say this specific thing right here, but this is my plight.” I don’t got a plight. That’s not my type of shit, so it don’t really mean much.
So that line you mentioned is a question. It’s not for me to answer. I’m asking, “How am I supposed to have a good time when death and destruction is all I see?” If I knew the answer, I wouldn’t ask the question. It’s not a struggle to me, as it might be to most people. I have no problem with… I won’t say I have no problem, but the surrounding elements of the environment and the world don’t bother me. I never think about stuff, honestly.
That seems false based on everything that is in your music, and every interview you’ve done.
The honest-to-God truth is that the things I say in my music might seem reflective of current times, but I have never went outside of me, my home, and my homies. It’s not a bigger picture, it’s just a scene.
But you and your homies are the bigger picture.
Not to me. What I’m saying is: We walked across the street yesterday. That’s the statement, because that’s the actual. Now, what is it about? Are you leaving? Are you trying to reach your destination? Is there a fear? Is there doubt? Are you traveling alone? There are things that can go into that and further define it, but nine times out of 10, nigga was probably just walking across the street.
“Why did the chicken cross the road?” Does it really ever fucking matter? The fact that it happened is the conversation, but it’s not really up to me, necessarily, to answer those questions. It’s up to the listener to sit and dissect the music and figure it out for themselves, because that’s fire shit.
Do you think you could have a second career after this as a commentator, a la Joe Budden?
No, I’m cool. I ain’t trying to talk no more.
A lot of people want you to talk.
People want a lot of things. I don’t care what people want.
They are certain things that people usually want you to talk about. The interview that introduced me to you was on ESPN’s “Highly Questionable,” and you seemed to want to talk about sports during that conversation…
And they was talking to me about being a gang banger? It happens every time: “I heard you just put out an album, but what’s it like to be in a street gang?” Which goes back to what I said—when is it ever about the music?
So is it just that people shouldn’t even ask about the music and just enjoy it?
This is my thing: If you listen to the songs, you get an emotional response, it makes you feel a certain type of way. You share that experience and you try to get more insight into your emotions. That’s really when it becomes constructive.
One thing I’ve noticed is that fans always refute when you tell them the truth. They want to fight, because it’s just an idea of what it’s supposed to be, because everyone’s so smart nowadays. With the internet, everyone’s so knowledgeable, everyone knows so much about music, everybody got a top five. But a lot of people don’t really digest the music and just be personal with it. Like, an album must sell a million-some records for two weeks, and then you never hear nobody talk about it again, because everybody move too fast. But you can’t blame music for moving fast. There’s so much going on in the world right now, so many ways to consume things, so many ways to dish them out. So I just don’t really expect the thought-out question to happen, especially when my fans have so much stuff to digest. I don’t really even know what the right question would be.
You’ve dropped a new project every year thus far in your career.
Yeah, somebody told me that yesterday. I didn’t even notice it to be real. They said, “You dropped four projects in three years,” and I was like, “No I haven’t,” and we had to really look at the shit. We don’t really record that much, so it don’t feel like it.
You don’t have a whole bunch of stuff just sitting around?
No, we probably got less than five unreleased finished songs that got names and shit. We ain’t got songs sitting around.
So this is not going to be a Tupac situation where…
Oh, if I’m dead, it’s over.