Vince Staples doesn’t give a fuck what you do at his show. When asked by Vulture if he was nervous about the release of his latest album Big Fish Theory, he responded, “I already booked my shows for this year, so. You’re going to have to sit down and listen to it. Or you can go get a beverage, but, I will be there.”
He assumed the stage with this same quasi-flippant attitude last Saturday night at the sixth installment of Tyler, The Creator’s Camp Flog Gnaw Carnival. I say ‘quasi’ because reducing this sentiment to sheer carelessness skews the Long Beach native’s position. Later in the same interview, he shared the hope that his music will be relevant a century from now. While these two expressions seem incompatible, it’s this comfort with exploring tension that makes Vince Staples' set the most exciting show in rap right now.
Vince can wish for his legacy and pay his contemporary listeners no mind, and this hinges on separating control of his art from responses to it. Living out that challenge, by choice or consequence, has molded his set to dance between poles of expression and coerces the viewer to engage with music the way Vince does.
I’m not sure of the setup for his headlining tour, but at Flog Gnaw, he presented himself simply. He took the stage alone, appearing as a black silhouette before a bright red backdrop. The hue contrast acted as a vessel to reassert the color to which he's been reduced. A ghoulish Fanonian "fuck you" to those reducing. His choice of lighting blacked out his features, rendering him anonymous and universalizing the performance to apply to all who share Vince's experience.
In keeping with that foreboding aesthetic, “Ramona Park Is Yankee Stadium” opens the set and fills the space with questions of legacy and station. Just as Kilo Kish lays out a possible outcome with her whisper of a gunshot, the opening drums of "Party People" cut in, a tempo switch reminiscent of a Freddie Knuckles flip, and heads nod on command. Vince claims he’s “always been very specific on certain things” and this sequencing is no different. He forces post-mortem thoughts on the audience and then slides past those left hanging who didn’t “come to party,” a playful challenge to keep his pace.
Vince lets you know which variable was more important though, at least in the moment, by sticking with songs that force you to move more than dwell. The number of people dancing seemed to grow throughout the set. Crowd favorites like "Blue Suede" and "BagBak" would counteract any lull, sending more ripples out as if he was returning to the same puddle with heavier stones.
In between tracks, he played the lovable braggart by asking if we knew who Vince Staples was and then answering his own question with, “Y’all know my fucking name.” During these asides, he gave his hair a lazy comb, which seemed to ground him for each new song. At one point he reminded anyone who forgot that “Stranger Things 2 is now available for streaming on Netflix” and close to the end he dedicated his performance of “Norf Norf” to the recently betrothed people's couple of hip-hop, Cardi B and Offset.
During abrasive songs like “Señorita,” his shadow bounced to all corners of the stage, while he brought fans to a bob that didn’t extend past their arms when he anchored himself to the mic stand for “745.” By the time Zach Sekoff’s arresting melody from “Homage” bounced off the Coliseum's walls, we were already lost in the music.
What makes this dissolution so fascinating is the fact it shouldn’t happen on paper. You get a “sense of desolation” reading the lyrics independent of their sounds, as Alphonse Pierre wonderfully explains in his essay on Big Fish Theory. Yet, through Vince’s cutting bars on gentrification, suicide, and pretty little liars, “you can ignore it all and just two-step.”
This isn’t ambivalence, but an immediate experience of music that expires when the song ends. Vince thinks we should consume it this way, and even makes his music in an analogous manner. In an interview with Pitchfork, he says, relating music to painting, “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.”
He goes on to say that seeking emotional clarity through sharing your experience of music is the most constructive way to discuss the medium. For that reason, he’s been unwilling to give listeners the playbook to Big Fish, since it would eliminate any need for dialectic among fans. He's not here for that. He's also not here to reconcile the lyrical content of his songs with their genre-twisting production. If he doesn't catalogue his references with time-stamps and locations from his personal history, we shouldn't expect him to tell us how our bodies react to his bouncy accounts of destruction.
During the media cycle for Big Fish, Vince drew attention to the fact that some fans and critics care less about a rapper’s music than the lifestyle and personal history surrounding it. “Nobody’s talking about the music for the most part,” he laments, “It’s not really a conversation for many people.” For him, this is contrary to the way he actually makes the music receiving that treatment. His job, as he sees it, is “to make songs” and “not really think about all the stuff” surrounding it. Vince chooses to remain silent and keep creating, instead of fighting with those trying to superimpose ideas into his music. He’s as diplomatic as possible in this critique, not wishing to “determine your relationship to the music.”
Still, for Vince, intellectualizing his music is secondary to actually experiencing it. He’s inviting you to appreciate his work as music, the way it was created.
Vince Staples can’t control how you felt about his music before the set and he knows it, so he doesn’t care. What he can affect is the space in which he invites you to engage with his body of work and he's coalesced the nuances of that space to give you genuine insight into his mind. He's aware of the tension in his music and has been telling us the best way to elucidate it: Be there for it.