In Long Beach, California, there’s a small park one block south of Artesia Boulevard and Indiana Avenue. It’s called Ramona Park, and according to exactly three Yelp reviews, there’s nothing particularly special about it. The consensus reads like you’d expect any public park-related review to read: Grassy, lots of trees, two baseball fields over here, two tennis courts over there, etc. For all practical purposes, Ramona Park is just an innocuous plot of land west of Bellflower.
Here’s the issue: Vince Staples considers Ramona Park to be just a bit more than a benign plot of land. He cares neither about practical purposes nor the consensus, and his phenomenal debut double-LP, Summertime ’06, delivers an absurdly strong case for why you shouldn’t, either. It breaks rules, thwarts stereotype and shatters expectation with the kind of vulnerability only a lifetime of first-hand experience can cultivate.
Rap music is in a funny spot. We’re witnessing the changing of a seriously conflicted guard, one shift aiming up and endorsing aspiration, the other refusing not to speak at eye-level. Progress rarely gets along with its predecessor. In the case of Staples, a bleaker outlook on the cultural disparity between make-believe and real life posits the two as sinister opposites. “Fight between my conscience and the skin that’s on my body, man / I need to fight the power, but I need that new Ferrari, man,” he relents on “Lift Me Up,” Summertime’s vicious second track.
Staples’ decision to take a turn at this concept is a killer one, indeed. The evolving trend in rap music is as palpable as it’s ever been. As albums like To Pimp a Butterfly and At Long Last ASAP continue to expose the glaring wrench in the wheel of Top 40 hip-hop, there’s never been a better time to be young, smart and talented. Staples is all of those things. He’s also angry.
That’s probably the biggest difference between Staples and the laundry list of rap artists in his peer group. Even when Kendrick Lamar expresses ire, it’s usually aimed at an overarching theme. Staples is much more worried about how those themes are perceived on paper. “If you listen to shit about niggas being in a position where they have no hope, there should be nothing at peace about that,” he said in a 2014 interview with Pitchfork’s Jeremy Gordon. “Every song on the radio right now is about selling cocaine and killing people, but that’s not what you hear from it, so in your head that becomes OK.”
No doubt, it’s a volatile disposition, but Staples possesses two remarkable gifts that make telling the story much more commercially viable. For starters, he’s a lyricist like no other on earth. His combination of nasally inflection and upper-register delivery comes across with soothing, ear-friendly undertones. Staples demonstrates this subject matter so viscerally that it’s not hard to imagine the majority of Summertime ’06 initially existing as some benign conversation between friends. It certainly makes relating to such a lurid message a little more feasible. Furthermore, the importance of Staples’ delivery is galvanized by the clarity of his message. Staples is an esteemed songwriter, weaving in and out of day-to-day hardships with an uncompromising drift that hits hard without compromising the austerity of the subject matter.
But maybe most importantly, he’s smart to enlist the help of producers who can paint his picture with vivid strokes. Though mostly tackled by mentor and board guru No I.D., production efforts span a Pro-Bowl roster of notable technicians. Clams Casino lays waste to three tracks, including “Surf,” featuring the spectacular stoner party girl Kilo Kish, doing her deer-in-headlights spoken-word hip-hop with vilifying finesse. “Surf,” bounces more eagerly than the rest of Summertime, and Clams drops silky low ends and ethereal glints in all the right places, making it one of the more enjoyable tracks on the album.
On the other end of Summertime’s spectrum, “Birds and Bees” oozes with production that sounds edited in an air plane hangar. DJ Dahi is a master of spacial awareness, and his eerie, stop-motion samples and tight-yet-flayed mechanical loops make “Birds and Bees,” an album high point, despite its glacial BPM. On “Lemme Know,” (featuring Jhene Aiko in one of the best tracks of her career) Dahi tinkers with vocal samples over a chorus line that reverberates like a demented tornado siren. His connection with Staples is taut and unencumbered.
Other notables include Brian Kidd (handling co-producer duties on “Lemme Know”) and Christian Rich (the orchestrator of the brilliant pre-release “Señorita”), both of which inject Summertime ‘06 with their own versions of heartfelt genius. “Señorita,” has made a case for song of the summer, and as a bookend to Summertime’s first half, aptly generates the momentum necessary to lead into the album’s best and most pivotal track.
“Summertime”, takes Staples as far out of his comfort zone as he’s willing to go on the album. With Clams Casino at the helm once again, the two pour a beautiful foundation. Guttural low ends are filled to the brim with warped, lo-fi synth arrangements that bend just as far as they sway. It’s haunting and strange, and most hypnotic is Staples sing-rap cadence all the way throughout. Where tracks like “3230” and “Get Paid,” showcase how fast and persistent Staples can be, “Summertime,” illustrates his ability to slow everything down, placing all the focus on his words and his producer. Sometimes, the most dynamic move you can make is to exercise self-control, and Staples has discovered how critical that awareness can be.
Staples’ brilliant Hell Can Wait EP turned many, many heads last year, and for good reason. “Hands Up,” and “Blue Suede,” are formidable in their own right, and No I.D. teams with Hagler and Infamous to make the Def Jam debut a mark in Staples’ win column. But Summertime ’06 signals significant progress for a young rapper who at first didn’t appear to need any. To Pimp a Butterfly will continue to live for years as one of rap’s most ingenious next-level albums, but Summertime ’06 pays homage to and justly champions the new crop of talent that will represent that level once the transition has passed. It may not be the most talked-about rap record of the year, but it probably deserves to be. Long live Ramona Park.