Vince Staples‘ songs exist in hip-hop’s liminal space where body music transforms itself into
Opening the evening was fellow Compton-born rapper Buddy, supporting his 2018 full-length debut Harlan & Alondra, an infectious fusion of smooth-gliding WestCoast G-funk, ear-worm choruses and genuine street-tempered pathos. Buddy’s performance was electric and emphatic, and the crowd matched his energy in kind.
In a live setting, Buddy’s ability to craft catchy and inventive hooks built only around his cadence and wordplay, instead of relying on the use of flashy guest vocalists, was on full display. “Shameless” and “Real Life Shit” in particular sounded huge – songs so catchy, immediate and joyful that they had everyone, neophytes included, singing by the second chorus. That’s truly impressive, and it makes me excited for whatever Buddy has coming up next.
After a frustratingly long between-set break, Vince Staples finally appeared, dwarfed by a gigantic video screen that spanned the entire width of MTELUS’ stage. The warbly digital whistling that drives the beat to “Feels Like Summer,” started coming through the PA just as stacks of CCTV-style, black and white CRT television screens appeared on the giant display. Staple’s current slate of shows is being called the “Smile, You’re on Camera” tour, and the reason for this became obvious minutes into the set. While some of the virtual TVs behind Staples showed what appeared to be scenes of everyday life from the artist’s home of Southern California, others started displaying grainy black and white footage of a rabid, sweaty crowd, along with dynamic performance video of the rapper himself. Turns out a number of videographers were running loose in the MTELUS crowd, capturing the reactions of fans, and feeding those images back into the ominous security camera setup acting as a backdrop for the entire performance. The implication was clear: even at a hip-hop show, expressing our freedom through the powerful and freeing act of partying, we are all constantly under surveillance, and the barriers 2 between private and public have been all but eroded. In a sense, this is what makes Vince Staples special. He doesn’t shy away from exploring what makes hip-hop’s hedonism and its social consciousness
No song in Vince’s discography is more emblematic of this than “FUN!,” from 2018’s FM!. “We just wanna have fun / We don’t wanna fuck up nothin’ / And we don’t give a fuck about nothin'” goes the songs’ refrain, and hearing it hurled back at Staples by a revved-up crowd perfectly illustrates the dark irony at the heart of those words. It’s a perfect condemnation of party music’s nihilistic aversion to challenging the status quo while doubling as a fucking fantastic party song. A trojan-horse in the form of a banger, if you will.
And while I could go on and on about how the high-concept stakes of Staples’ art, I was most impressed but just how magnetic and confident a performer he’s become. For lengthy stretches of the set, the massive surveillance projections would cease, and Staples would plant himself at the mic stand, fully stationary, and just sing his songs. In those moments he became completely transfixing. Something about his standoffish posture, his thousand-yard stare, and that cutting, clear, slightly-nasal voice just commanded attention without any artifice. It was clear to me that I was watching not only a consummate professional but someone with a ton of natural charisma.
One of the set’s highlights was “Lift Me Up,” from Staples’ 2015 debut Summertime ’06. Live, the songs fuzzed out bass lope was slowed down to a Sabbathian lurch, ratcheting the tension leading up to every chorus. The peak of the evening came when Staples performed the electronica-tinged “BagBak,” a song that became tremendously popular last year after it was featured in the trailer for Marvel’s Black Panther. “Tell the one per cent to suck a dick because we on now!” goes the song’s outro, chanted with force by the audience, and while it certainly wasn’t the set’s most subtle moment, it was definitely
And yet for all of Staples’ wit, showmanship and incisiveness, the most nakedly emotional part of the evening came when the rapper chose to cede the spotlight. In lieu of performing an encore, Staples simply used his giant projection screen to show the entirety of a pre-recorded NPR tiny-desk concert performed by his friend Mac Miller, who passed away from an accidental drug overdose at the end of last summer. Astonishingly, the crowd didn’t exit the venue now that Staples was no 3 longer on stage. Instead, they huddled up, hugged their friends and loved ones, and watched, smiling, as Mac performed his laidback tunes from the ether. We clapped in between
Review – Jean-Michel Lacombe
Photos – Ramy Elhoufy