Inside the Unflinching Reality of Vince Staples' Videos

Vince Staples is blowing up, but his videos are some of the darkest and toughest in rap right now.
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Vince Staples is blowing up, but his videos are some of the darkest and toughest in rap right now.

Videos have always been a medium that allows rappers to manifest their exaggerated lifestyles, where the rhymes of luxurious belongings are brought to life. Not Vince Staples. Vince doesn’t rap about the luxuries of life and his videos are equally unforgiving.

The broken homes don't magically become mansions, the police sirens wailing from the back door aren’t exchanged for foreign cars in the driveway. If anything his videos are even more intense than his music. “Senorita” was one of the few music videos from last year that you watched with your eyes but felt in your gut. The ominous society he captures in black and white is unforgettable, the layers of harsh imagery will gnaw at you long after the video is finished.

The video brings to life a world that simulates one of Vince’s most raw perspectives—how the upper class can look at the poor the same way humans view lions in the zoo. It’s only entertainment for the person who watches from behind the glass, a metaphor that goes beyond rap music.

It’s a perfect introduction into the sharp mind of Vince Staples, where realism isn’t sugarcoated to comfort viewers but darkened to resemble the imperfect surroundings that raised him, but it's also only a continuation of a video style's he's been practicing for years.

Stolen Youth is the name of Vince's second mixtape, the theme of lost innocence is rooted at the heart of his artistry. He grew up quickly, a childhood that is represented best on the song “Nate.” It takes place through the pupils of a young Vince Staples, vividly describing the complex relationship with a father that is more villain than hero, more Gucci Mane than Dr. Huxtable, but he still looks up to him as any boy would. While the song showcases his prowess for storytelling it’s the video that encapsulates a home short of happiness. Told through the eyes of a young boy, he’s no older than 10. In the ideal world, his day would start with pancakes and Pokemon, but that’s not the reality. He wakes up and before his bread can spring from the toaster he's witnessing a father measuring white powder on a scale.

The scene pans to a domestic war zone where his mother slaps the man across the head, an argument ensues and the boy appears almost invisible. His face is blank, biting into his toast and turning away from his raging parents. The visual is more short film than music video, Vince only appears briefly when the boy passes him in route to the convenience store, a mere cameo. When the boy returns, his father is being arrested, dragged out the house by two officers while still yelling at the woman. It ends with the camera panning to the wall showing the imprint of a fist and the boy laying back in bed, unfazed by the situation. It wasn’t the first time and he seemed to accept that it wouldn’t be the last. It was one of the first Vince videos to be released, setting the bar high for whatever would come after.

“Nate” is based on the child who observed the madness, “Fire” from the Hell Can Wait EP is the adolescent who is now contributing to the mayhem, stained with his own sins. The EP’s title is likely what inspired the location for the “Fire” music video. It begins with Vince running through the open door of an empty Catholic church, he seems panicked, but the minute he’s inside he walks slowly, taking in the scenery. When he enters into the confessional, a priest enters the other side and the song begins. His verse alludes to events that happened in the summer of ‘06, the year when he was at his most wild.

A church is surprisingly a great setting for a music video—the stained glass looks gorgeous and the big windows allow incredible lighting to pour through. It’s a pretty daring visual in context to the song lyrics, there’s no hope in the hook which defeats the purpose of confessing and being cleansed. In a way, the confessional is similar to the recording booth - a place where demons from the past can be confronted without judgment (until it’s released).

Throughout his career, Vince has never been specific about his activities, we know his history as a gang banger but unlike Kendrick, who continues to slowly open up about events that haunt him, Vince never reveals more than he has to. He never completely opens up, maybe because he knows no matter what he’s going to hell anyway.

“Blue Suede” is also a song framed during his wildest summer, when he was completely immersed in running with the wolves. “Blue Suede” is shot in black and white, but the blues and reds are all highlighted. Shirts, hats, pants, shoes, liquor store signs, lipstick, all shine with color as Vince weaves through a party of people and rapping on the roof. Anyone gangbanging lives and dies by their colors, the visual captures their significance to his surroundings. The camera tends to B-roll across a lot of different landmarks to bring the viewer into Long Beach, where Vince was born and raised. Here, wearing a red hat, or a pair of blue suede shoes, isn’t just a fashion statement. If the young man in "Blue Suede" feels like the grown version of "Nate" you're right - freeze "Blue Suede" at the 53-second mark. That picture of his mom is the same as his mother in the "Nate" video, a small detail few will notice but speaks to his devotion to detail. 

“Norf Norf” is the second video released from his debut album, Summertime ’06. Just like “Senorita,” it’s recorded in black and white. The song opens with a close up on Vince's face, he’s rapping in a backseat but it’s not until the camera pans back that you see it’s a police car. Three other boys are being arrested on the outside, the one who is wearing the Long Beach baseball jersey is slammed rather aggressively against the hood. Despite the lyrics, “I never ran from nobody but the police,” there isn’t any big chase scene, it’s completely centered on the incarceration of four black young men who don’t really appear to have done anything to warrant this treatment.

The video walks you through the arrest, the ride downtown, I love the shot of the black officer who shakes his head in disappointment as Vince and the other boys are brought in (notice his Sprite on the counter). The best scene is in the interrogation room—even in holding Vince he's without worry, propping his feet on their table like he’s lounging at in the comfort of his home. The cops are heated, the old white guy that looks like an extra from CSI Long Beach slams his face into the table, he’s obviously the bad cop. You never know what Vince is booked for but the video does a great job at replicating a scenario that both feels realistic and could easily be made into a clip for [fill in the blank] popular cop show.

Last Friday, Vince released the video for one of my favorite songs from his album, “Lift Me Up." It’s rare, this is by far his most abstract and ambitious visual yet. It begins with the intro song, “Ramona Park Legend,” a minimalist, melancholy beat that incorporates the smooth sounds of seagulls and the ocean waves. The video has some great clips of the beach, the pier, seagulls drawing you in before the blast of a gun transitions into “Lift Me Up.”  Vince's body is thrown into the frame, a hand here, the side of his face, the silhouette of his body on the ground, it’s a very slow build up. When he begins to rap, he’s in the bed and the camera is shooting from the ceiling. It spins slowly, never changing its angle even though Vince’s body changes locations. The angle switches when he’s standing on the pier, his body appears almost limped, almost possessed. He appears to start levitating, by the hook he is completely off the ground, but his body is still strangely limped.

When the first “lift me up” drops, the camera begins to spin rapidly, the kind of spinning that will appear familiar to anyone that stands up after taking too many shots. It’s pretty strange, for a song rich in details, it focuses on literalizing the chorus. Vince is literally lifted up by what appears to be a higher power. This is unlike when Kendrick was soaring in “Alright.” Vince is positioned as if he’s being abducted by aliens or being taken into the gates of heaven.

The concept doesn’t really fit the song, I was hoping to see a driver that resembled Jeffrey Dahmer but I also appreciate the fact he attempted a more difficult treatment. It’s honestly something I would expect from a rock band, Vince wears a Suicidal Tendencies hoodie and his artwork is loosely inspired by Joy Division's Unknown Pleasures, so it’s possible that the inspiration for this video is outside of hip-hop’s realm. 

Unlike Flying Lotus or Childish Gambino, Vince isn’t creating an ongoing narrative through his visuals. There doesn't seem to be any larger connecting story, but each video represents a slice of his life. He chooses to embrace and not escape from darker days. While it’s been proven that he has a humorous side, that there’s a personality behind the cold stare, it doesn’t appear in his music. Not a single joke is cracked when he raps and not a single smirk is made when filming his visuals. There's two very real sides of Vince Staples, one that can be on GQ clowning the fashion choices of NBA players and other who is still finding inspiration from the summer that changed his life. His life hasn’t been a walk on the beach but this isn’t someone who wants us to see how far he's come.

Instead, Vince Staples is forcing everyone to now watch where he’s headed in order to see where he came from.

By Yoh, aka Fear and Loathing In a Google Doc, aka @Yoh31