Vince Staples looks back on turbulent childhood on ‘FM!’
Given the ambition of Vince Staples’ first two albums — the sprawling “Summertime ’06” (2015) and the more experimental EDM accents that flavored “Big Fish Theory” (2017) — the 22-minute “FM!” (Def Jam) may sound slight by comparison, a place-holder instead of a major statement. But listen closely, and the subject matter and the sequencing suggest a more carefully considered work, one that provides a pocket-sized insight into the MC’s childhood.
Framed as an FM radio broadcast, with skits that include Los Angeles morning-show host Big Boy, “FM!” provides a snapshot of what it felt like to grow up in Long Beach, Calif., in the early 2000s. Staples was a hustler on the gangdominated north side of Long Beach, a lifestyle that ran in his family. Traditional childhood options — youth centers, the YMCA, sports leagues, Boy Scouts — weren’t available.
The new album blends the G-funk that defined the Long Beach sound of the ’90s via the music of Snoop Dogg, Warren G and Nate Dogg with cautionary tales. The West Coast brand of hip-hop was party music for forgotten communities, and producer Kenny Beats demonstrates the durability of that buoyant groove. But amid the eternal summer of Southern California, darkness bleeds in from the edges.
“We gon’ party till the sun or the guns come out,” Staples raps at the outset, underlining the notion that every moment of joy is impossible to fully inhabit because a Long Beach kid always needs to be looking over his shoulder for the next threat, the next gun.
An eerie, trap-beat darkness wafts through “Don’t Get Chipped,” but there is anger and resilience as well. Staples reflects on a classic song from his grandparents’ era, Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come,” and how its prayer for deliverance has been answered for a chosen few. Staples was the wayward kid who got out. He escaped the Long Beach carnage through music. But he can’t turn his back on his “Norf Side” crew, the kids with no future: “Sammy told me that a change gone come/ I’m not going if my gang won’t come,” he raps.
On “Tweakin’,” he offers a eulogy to the ones who didn’t make it. Sadness tinges Staples’ testimonial, but mostly he sounds numb. Kehlani’s singing on the chorus provides no relief, no “peace of mind.” Staples may have moved from the old, battlescarred neighborhood, but it’s still with him.
Rapper Vince Staples performs Nov. 3 at ComplexCon in Long Beach, Calif.