I. How I’m S’posed to Have a Good Time
Back on Poppy Street, Vince Staples is still America’s most reluctant celebrity.
Four months before the release of his new project, FM!, Vince spoke with Joe Budden on his loss of interest in entertaining audiences. Budden asked Staples why, at one point, he made it seem like he was withdrawing from the public eye. Vince replied, “Because I stopped caring about that when my homies started dying.”
Referring to the loss of his grandmother in late 2017, and the feeling of not being able to attend his friend’s funeral because of the people in Ramona Park who still wish harm on him, Vince pointedly stated that the art he creates does not matter when his family and friends are dying and others want him dead.
On FM!, a 22-minute peek into Vince’s world, aka Ramona Park, death is central. In the very first verse, Vince’s friend Johnny “gave his life for this shit,” and Vince might kill his brother if they wear the “wrong hat, wrong day.” The final tragedy on “Tweakin’” finds Kehlani mourning that “we just lost somebody else this weekend.”
The gutting irony of FM! is found in the stark contrast between Vince’s narration of death and the project’s welcoming, warm radio conceit. FM! plays like a set from Big Boy’s Neighborhood, the nationally syndicated radio show out of Los Angeles. Throughout the project, LA legend Big Boy keeps the action moving, introducing songs and making calls to guests. As the show begins, Big Boy welcomes listeners into the warmth of summertime: “It always feels like summer in the neighborhood, man.” Meanwhile, Vince begins his narration of a death-laden summer where they “party ‘til the sun or the guns come out.”
In the context of Vince’s career, FM! provides a backhanded answer to the incessant demand from fans to make an album with more West Coast-sounding production. Shirking the futuristic electronica found throughout 2017’s Big Fish Theory, Vince gives the listeners what they want, but on his own terms. While audiences will surely move to Kenny Beats’ arresting production at future shows, Vince does not compromise his words for the sake of crowd-pleasing:
"Left side, who ‘bout that life? / Right side, who ‘bout that life? / Nighttime, who ‘bout to die? / Outside, you know my mind"
These words, found on “Outside!,” can be read as a more subtle version of Staples’ lyrics from Summertime ‘06, where he challenged white listeners with the lines, “All these white folks chanting when I ask them, ‘Where my n—s at?’” Speaking to NPR, Vince said this line “forces people to think about themselves, which is a very hard thing to do sometimes.”
Undoubtedly, fans on the left and right sides will jump to “Outside!” even if, as it often goes, we are not “‘bout that life,” the life that ends all too soon. Big Boy even invites listeners outside as if this were a neighborhood barbecue and not Vince’s feeling that he is losing his mind to the constant deaths surrounding him. But will fans catch onto such subtlety in the heat of a packed venue?
II. Wonder if They Know I Know
Throughout his career, Vince has sought to challenge his white fans through his artistry, even when we are oblivious to the contradictions he points out. Perhaps this ignorance is why he feels the need to return to the image, like Dalí obsessing over his melting clocks. In 2015, Vince’s “Señorita” video followed him down a street as death and destruction came to the neighborhood. As the camera pans out, it reveals a white family—a mother, father, and daughter—who have been watching Vince through the glass as if Poppy Street were an aquarium feature. As his street burns, the family safely watches, smiling and enjoying themselves.
As a portrait of voyeurism, “Señorita” provokes white listeners to reconsider our enjoyment of the realities that Vince and other rappers relate. When we repackage and consume Black death for entertainment, we partake in a form of dehumanization regardless of how “not-racist” we claim to be. This is not to say that white people cannot engage in hip-hop responsibly, but that consumption does not create compassion or real transformation between people. As Vince said himself in his NPR interview:
"We gotta stop pretending that we care about people, and what they do, if we don't. That's an honest thing — 'cause what it is, is a sense of camaraderie, sense of brotherhood, sense of belonging. The same way if you live in this country, you're American; if you live in another country you can be whatever they call it there. You're a Democrat or you're a Republican. You're this or you're that. You're black or you're white. We all belong to different sects and different — different spaces within something that exists above us."
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Vince addressing this “something that exists above us” in both his interviews, coupled with his creative output, suggests that he is not entirely cynical as to the possibility of change since to return to the issue over and over without hope would only drive him mad. In this way, his new video for FM! single “FUN!” finds him posing the same question asked in “Señorita,” but with even more precision.
In the video, Google Maps zooms from the entire globe to Poppy Street, where Vince and company are outside on the block, living out their day. As the camera pans through the still frames of the scene on the street, it stops to see a few things play out live: Vince and friends lighting votive candles on the sidewalk; two women fighting in the street, filmed by two others; three men stealing bikes from a white woman; kids dancing; a woman in fishnet stockings and shorts; the three men who robbed the woman then being shoved onto the hood of a police car; Vince’s neighborhood posing for another camera filming them.
As the camera stops to watch these moments live, these brief pauses suggest that the watcher desires to see these moments as lived by others: mourning, violence, crime, punishment, and entertainment. Is this the entire sum of Poppy Street’s value to the viewer? Apparently, they do not know Vince’s neighborhood, or else why would they need to see it through a lens? With no real relation to Poppy Street, the viewer is left with what they want to see, and the moment remains transactional for him or her.
But more than entertainment—as was the case in “Señorita”—there is something far more sinister about the way “FUN!” plays out via Google Maps, a comment on technology-as-surveillance in the modern age. Where the family in “Señorita” presumably traveled to see Poppy Street in some exhibit, the viewer in “FUN!” is able to take it all in from the comfort of their computer. With no one able to see him, no one can force him to consider the weight of his actions. Instead, he has free reign to live vicariously, to surveil Ramona Park without its consent.
From anywhere in the world we can stream—through song or video—the lives of people we will never meet, lives many of us will never ourselves experience. The digital world prides itself on hyper-connection, but “FUN!” asks us to assess the distance between our actual lives. Notably, when the three men rob the woman of her bikes, the camera pixellates one of the men so that he appears split in half, moments before he is pinned down to a police car as if the digital prophesies the assault on his physical body. As if he is only an image to the watcher.
In response to being watched, as the viewer scans the street, a man gives the camera his middle finger, kids throw rocks to break the camera, and Vince—the detached prophet—mostly keeps his eyes on the viewer, silently judging while continuing to perform for them.
Like “Señorita,” the video for “FUN!” ends in a similar fashion: the camera reveals the invisible viewer to be a white teenage boy scrolling through Ramona Park on his MacBook. Unlike the family in “Señorita” though, this boy is interrupted—abruptly called by his mother, him gasping as if he has been caught. This white teenage boy has been surveilling Poppy Street from the comfort of his home, consuming their lives for sport, until disrupted.
III. To Think Maybe You’d Avert Your Glance at Me
On “(562) 453-9382,” an interlude from FM!, Big Boy takes a call from Christian, a man from Whittier, only 25 minutes from Long Beach. Christian is given seven seconds to name seven celebrities with names that start with V. After immediately naming Vanessa Williams, Christian freezes: “I can’t think of anything!”
Christian, only a few miles from Vince Staples, does not know him. Vince often states that he has no interest in the notion of celebrity; he has mentioned on multiple occasions that he is here to get money and leave. That said, Vince places a premium on community, as he told Joe Budden that he hangs out with the same people he’s always known and only knows other rappers in the context of actual friendships and not because of their roles in the music industry. Thus, Big Boy’s interaction with Christian reveals a subtext throughout FM! and much of Vince’s career: how big can a community really be?
Is Christian too far away to know Vince and value his humanity? What about the Christian woman who heard Vince’s music for the first time and was appalled at the messages it contained? Notably, given the context of FM!’s conceit, the woman said that she could not believe that a song like “Norf Norf” was being played on the radio. Vince reframed her statement in the context of his own reality: “I'm 100 percent sure my mother would have loved for her children to not be exposed to gang life. The difference is it wasn't on the radio — it was in our house, and it was outside, and it was at our schools, and it was at our churches, it was everywhere that we were.”
But based on Vince’s compassion for that woman, wherein he defended her position as being one of care and concern for what he was being exposed to, he appreciated her reaction as being better than no reaction:
"She never said one negative thing about me. At all. Her statement was that she doesn't understand how this is getting to major airwaves — which is debatable, it's fair for her to feel that way. And most of [all], she kind of felt bad about the fact that it was possible that these things could really happen. Shouldn't we be, you know, happy that someone actually is considering the fact that this really happens, rather than passing it off as fable or just ignoring it?" — NPR
Vince Staples would rather be in the community than be a celebrity. On FM!, and “FUN!,” he asks white audiences which one we’re more invested in. The answer is telling. Luckily, Vince’s vision stretches beyond what is immediately visible.
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