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Vince Staples Shows a Softer Side on ‘Dark Times’

Veteran rapper continues to craft densely lyrical, hook-filled bangers while reaching towards new depths of understanding about his life

Vince Staples

Shaniqwa Jarvis*

Ten years after the release of his Def Jam debut, the Hell Can Wait EP, Vince Staples occupies an ambiguous middle-ground, stuck between platinum-certified arena status and the ephemeral virality that defines too much of the mainstream rap industry. It’s a space that he shares with a handful of others – Maxo, Rapsody, Navy Blue, his onetime Odd Future colleague Earl Sweatshirt – and which allows him to craft densely thematic musical suites on a major-label platform without the pressure of landing a radio hit. He’s made good use of it by delivering an array of impressive albums, from his 2015 classic Summertime ’06 to 2022’s Ramona Park Broke My Heart. His fans refer to his style as “lyrical,” a highly charged term that seemingly elevates certain kinds of rap artists over others. But Staples knows how to make a hook-filled banger, too. Ramona Park brought the Ty Dolla $ign-enhanced “Lemonade,” which was licensed for an Acura Integra commercial, and the Mustard-produced “Magic.” Both cuts got plenty of airplay on the West Coast but didn’t break onto the Billboard charts.

Not quite an underground rapper, not quite a major-label star, Staples has flourished by building a rich catalog as a “middle-class act,” as David Byrne once described his Talking Heads. That sense of in-betweenness isn’t without tension, though, and you can hear some of his frustration emerge in his sixth album, Dark Times. “Label tryna give me feedback/Tell me, ‘Bring the streets back’/Fans said they want 2015 Vince/Dropped ‘Big Fish,’ club been weak since (damn),” he raps on “Étouffée.” As he references Cash Money on the chorus, he adds, “All I wanted was a couple mill/Make the city proud.”

In some ways, Dark Times is a vintage end-of-contract album (it’s the last in his decade-long deal with UMG), with Staples taking stock of a career that includes a well-received Netflix show (2023’s The Vince Staples Show). “I was given an opportunity as a teenager by Def Jam and Universal, so I’m very appreciative of that,” he told RS’ Andre Gee earlier this week. Some of its themes will be familiar to listeners, including his lifelong identity as a Crip soldier from Long Beach, and a lingering awareness of survivor’s guilt over making it out while too many friends didn’t. “It’s hard to sleep when you’re the only one livin’ the dream/Hard to leave niggas hangin’ when you the money tree,” he raps on “Government Cheese.” Other aspects feel like fresh territory. He frequently refers to heartbreak and angst over relationships, particularly in the 35-minute album’s second half. “The woman that I love won’t respond to my text,” he raps on “Radio” – cue Eazy-E’s “Radio” and its Greg Mack interludes – which begins with shout-outs to Aughts faves like Nelly and Blu & Exile’s Below the Heavens and ends with him soaking in his feelings, listening to “Etta James and Amy [Winehouse], waitin’ for the day she take me back.”

Like most (male) rappers, Staples has a conflicted relationship with women and, by proxy, the dangers of emotional openness. One of his key tracks is Summertime ’06’s “Summertime,” where he harmonized, “My feelings told me love is real/But feelings known to get you killed.” On past albums, Staples’ determination to retain his bulletproof hardness led him to revise and rewrite the same kinds of stories about his gangbanging past and staying strapped, making any moment of vulnerability feel like sunrays peeking through the clouds.

But with Dark Times, Staples insists on softer tones. The street bravado he displays on “Children’s Song,” where he warns, “Don’t play with my Crip and play with your kids, bitch,” feels outweighed by tracks like “Shame on the Devil,” where he makes a fraught confession: “I know some hoes that’ll pull up to give me some pussy before they come give me a hug.” He uses an oft-sampled 1971 interview between Nikki Giovanni and James Baldwin on “Liars” to highlight how people should show their best selves to their romantic partners, even if the persona feels false. (“You lied when you smiled at that cracker down the job, right?” said Giovanni. “Treat me the same way you treat him.”) Finally, Staples turns over the closing track, “Why Won’t the Sun Come Out,” to Santigold, who talks about a vivid dream she had. Then, she returns to Staples’ sentiment about “hoes” who give him sex instead of affection. “It’s fucked up,” she concludes.

Dark Times has a handful of the kind of should-be-hits found throughout his catalog. A highlight is “Little Homies,” where he chants, “Life hard, but I go harder” over a sticky, house-y beat by Kaelin Ellis and LeKen Taylor and backing vocals by Kilo Kish. “Nothing Really Matters” is an engaging midtempo ballad that features a chorus by Maddy Davis. Throughout, Staples’ dominant instincts like narrative-driven songwriting and punchy choruses sustain him. His flow falters a bit, particularly on “Étouffée.” If he sounds tentativeness at times, it may be from his self-consciousness at grasping for a new level of maturity and, surprisingly, spirituality. “Keep prayin’,” he sings at the end of “Shame on the Devil.”

It feels brave for Staples to reach towards new depths of understanding about his life and the people he encounters. That makes Dark Times a richer piece of music than the stock action heroics that typify rap, even if every moment on the album doesn’t quite work. Will it bring him the kind of mainstream success he has long deserved? Who knows. But as he turns a page in his career towards an unknown future, he should feel nothing but a sense of accomplishment.

From Rolling Stone US