Vince Staples turns up for our street style shoot wearing a grin and a moose-and-snowflake adorned maroon Christmas sweater. “I got this at Levi’s,” he quips, seeming utterly entertained. In conversation, he is clear-sighted and loquacious, offering his point of view in a tone that hints that everything, including any interview questions, are on some level a bit of a joke.
Still, there’s nothing malicious or condescending about Staples’ constant undertone of mockery; if anything, it seems a bit long-suffering. The North Long Beach rapper is a self-proclaimed regular guy who stumbled onto a career that has led to an altered state of unprompted public opinion, interviews and dissections of his life.
That shift can be traced back to 2011, when Staples released his debut mixtape, Shyne Coldchain Vol. 1, after featuring on Earl Sweatshirt’s eponymous debut album. Prior to that, Staples had never envisioned a career in music, which perhaps makes him the most reluctantly successful rapper in the game. It’s hardly a bad thing: he’s emerged all the more rational for it, and frankly seems unimpressed by the hype surrounding him.
By the time Staples leaves our office, he’s enlightened our executive editor on the finer points of the Mandela theory, dissected the symbiotic relationship between social media and stardom, shared his favorite song on the Hardball soundtrack and preemptively decided he’s the next rap “lil.”
Tell us a little more about the inspiration behind the ‘Prima Donna’ EP.
The broad picture about Prima Donna is not interesting because I’m not good at things like this. What happened is, I woke up one day and I was like, “I’m going to make an EP about…What did I say it was about? Damn. Give me five seconds to figure out what it’s about…”
I always talk about how we under-appreciate our artists and treat them like shit because we hate them. So I was like, I’m going to make an EP about it, and that’s what happened.
Is the EP name supposed to speak to the idea that fans often look at artists as prima donnas if they don’t make themselves accessible?
That’s how they treat everyone. It’s like, “you don’t want to come rap today? You’re worthless, you’re an asshole, you’re ungrateful. You want to go do something else with your time? Fuck you. Frank Ocean, you’re not going to give us an album? You’re an asshole Frank Ocean, fuck you Frank Ocean.”
Do you think the accessibility of artists makes it easy for fans to forget they aren’t owed anything?
Yeah. I had this conversation with a dude I know the other day and he was like, “It took him [Frank Ocean] four years to make this?” And I was like, “what do you mean it took four years to make this? It didn’t take him four years.”
Anyway, the guy makes t-shirts so I said, “if you don’t put out a shirt for eight months, that doesn’t mean it took you eight months to make the shirt. Nah, you probably did it in five to ten minutes but maybe you were doing some other things with your life. The difference is that when you have this job [as an entertainer] you’re suddenly not a person anymore.”
Maybe that’s just a reality of the current climate. Everything is commodified, including people.
Yeah, there’s a price tag on everything including black people’s lives and what they do with them.
It’s interesting you say that, because the “Señorita” video seemed to speak to this. Putting the glass wall between the suburban white family and this “other,” was that your way of communicating the notion that, as a person of color or someone from a particular background, your experiences have been romanticized for consumption?
Yeah, strictly for entertainment.
When you address issues like the above, are you hoping to enlighten people?
Not really, I’m just saying what I think about at the time. I don’t make a point to do anything, really. I say what I have to say at the moment and when I don’t want to say it anymore, then I won’t.
I understand the weight of these experiences and the appreciation people have for what I do, but that’s not all I look at. I just make what I’m making, and then one day I won’t want to make it anymore. I think that’s a luxury we should be able to have as people, especially as artists.
Do you think the structure of the music industry has anything to do with the way artists are treated?
I’m not sure if it has anything to do with the music industry in particular. That’s kind of a made-up thing, it’s just business. The business of it doesn’t really have to do with how fans and people treat you. There are still people who will openly steal your music and then go on the internet and talk shit.
Say a rapper’s house gets foreclosed or their car gets repo’d or something, when stuff like that happens they’ll make fun of you. Yet still, they’ll steal your music. It’s like robbing someone and then being like, “haha you’re poor.”
Yeah, I’m poor, you just took my money from me. It doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t add up. We’re not real people. They don’t look at you like you’re a person. That’s why, when you’re in the middle of a conversation, they’ll walk up to you and ask you to take a picture. If you happen to say “no” that day, then you’re the asshole.
The reality is, it’s no different to any other job. If someone works at Target and they’re not at work and they’re just out living their life, you’re not going to walk down the street like, “Hey! Can you show me where the bleach is?” It’s like, “No I can’t show you the bleach. I’m trying to have a conversation with my mother and I’m not at work.”
Most people wouldn’t respond like, “Oh, you won’t show me where the bleach is on your off day? You’re an asshole!” They do that with artists though, but it’s a small problem to have, I guess.
You have a really pragmatic approach to being a public figure and seem to view music as a business. Did you always see things like this?
Yeah. Music was never really something I wanted to do, so I never thought about it as a kid. I don’t have any dreams or aspirations or goals I want to meet music-wise, so there’s nothing to keep me from being level-headed.
I was never like, “Oh man, I want a Grammy and I’ll do whatever it takes.” Someone like that might not do what it takes to have a decent touring career, because they’re in the studio trying to master whatever they’re doing to win a Grammy.
Someone who only wants to play sold-out shows will find a tempo that works at the shows and then focus on making that kind of music, but maybe they’ll miss out on other things because of it. I don’t really have a focus, I just make music.
What’s your writing process like?
I wake up sometimes with an idea and then I write it down. It’s not necessarily easy, but when you focus on something it comes. I usually just have ideas when I have them.
How do you feel about people using you as an example of lyrical hip-hop? Especially since bemoaning the death of “real” hip-hop seems to be a current trend?
I think it’s kind of stupid and rude. Every song with lyrics is lyrical. Those people just need a hug. Everyone serves a purpose. Take Michael Jackson, he’s like the biggest musician to ever grace the face of the earth. What’s his bar? What’s the Michael Jackson bar for him to be like, “ooh this shit is cold.” I don’t know. I don’t know if that even mattered at that point.
He just said the kid wasn’t his. He rocked her world, he knew he did. He said whatever he wanted to say. He’s a smooth criminal, you know? Just statements. Michael Jackson never said some super deep shit.
He did say, “they don’t really care about us”…
Yeah, that’s still just a statement. Young Thug said, “R.I.P. Mike Brown, fuck the cops.”
True, also a statement, but it does carry some weight. I get what you’re saying, though. One statement shouldn’t mean any less because of “lyrics”…
It’s music, you’re just saying how you feel. I understand it’s a hip-hop thing, but I’m not really a fan of that. I think it’s rude. I’d invite those people to go crank out some super duper deep, tough, introspective bars and see if you can make someone smile. I don’t think you should criticize people’s music because maybe it just isn’t for you.
It’s tough critiquing most things, because it requires establishing rigid parameters of good and bad. It’s even more difficult with creativity because it’s so personal. Take Richard Prince, he just got sued again. What do you think about the debate on whether he’s making real art or not?
Richard Prince is hilarious. I’d be so happy if Richard Prince commented on one of my pictures and framed it and sold it. I’d sue the fuck out him just to get him to have a conversation with me, like, “what’re you doing bro? I won’t sue you if you give me something for my house.”
Would you let him sell your picture?
Yeah, just to get his attention. You know how Nabil found Kanye? He had KanyeWest.com and they were like, “can we buy it from you?” He was like, “I’ll give it to you, just let me take pictures of you.”
Any musical influences?
My mom and Tony Hawk Pro Skater.
No, not really, it’s just my new favorite thing to say. When people ask me my influences and I’m like, “nobody” they’re like, “there has to be somebody.” People seem to think you have to have an influence.
What’re your thoughts on ‘Endless’ and ‘Blonde’?
I’m proud of Michael Uzowuru. I’m happy he got a production placement, because he’s one of the dearest friends in my life. I’m so proud of Lonny [Frank], he’s a good guy. He’s Frank Ocean, there’s nothing else to it.
He’s Frank Ocean and that means more than anything else you can say. That’s the crazy part about music, that you can just be someone and it means something. The important part is that he is Frank Ocean and there’s never been another one.
To be fair, there hasn’t been another Vince Staples either…
I don’t know about that. We’ve had Lil Wayne, Lil’ Zane, Sammy, Lil Bow Wow; there’s been a lot of me.
You’re a teenage heartthrob rapper?
I just feel like I’m the next “Lil” something.
Because when I was a kid if you didn’t have “Lil” in front of your name, you were trash.
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- Photographer: Nico Amarca/Highsnobiety