Loss of innocence is one of the most powerful truths of youth. The first taste of alcohol, the first time driving, the first trip without your parents, the first time having sex; the slow and uneasy transition into adulthood is often marked by these small unremarkable moments that seem so remarkable at the time. But those slow and innocent markers of time alone are privileges. For many in our world, innocence is lost in brutal and swift fashion. And often for the unfortunate, the innocence lost is something that should never be lost, regardless of age. You should never hear that your teenage friend has been murdered in cold blood, you should never watch your father lighting a crack rock on the stove, you should never fear hearing of another dead body in an alleyway near your home. Vince Staples' brilliant Summertime '06 documents, with an unflinching gaze, the travails of growing up in an American community, Long Beach, California, where innocence is shattered with brutal haste in one summer, and in its place, the hellish realities of inner-city America swallow any light in their path and leave broken psyches in their wake.
Prior to the album's release, Vince Staples released the following quote on his Instagram to speak about his upcoming album,
"Same song every day, listening to the words of a dead man destroyed by his own mind and body. Why? Because at the end of the day we’re all dead anyway. At least where I come from. Love tore us all apart. Love for self, love for separation, love for the little we all had, love for each other, where we came from. Jabari, Chris, Shard, Tom, Richy, Tyson, Tony, Shelly, Phil, Marcel, Brandon, Steve, Jaron, Tay. Too many to name, too much to forget. Some lost to prison, some lost to Forest Lawn, some turned snitch. Some still here but it will never be the same.”
Conceptually, the album is all about the beginning of the end. The time that lives were swallowed whole and simply surviving became the order of the day. Of course, this is not a new narrative trope within hip-hop as a whole, but Vince Staples is a voice of unwavering power, clarity, and intent. He is clearly a man of intellect and keen observation, because his abilities to scythe through any communicatory barriers are incredible. His direct approach as a lyricist was promising on his 2014 EP, Hell Can Wait, but with the deep conceptual basis of Summertime '06, his narrative emphasis on portraying a complete, unfettered, and blunted picture of maturing in Long Beach is stunning. His stories reveal the attitudes and actions necessary to survive in a neighborhood forgotten and loathed by the United States.
Musically, the album crackles with dark energy. The production is leering with menace, bass looms and distortion abounds. In the best way you could ever say this, the music is joyless. As Vince viciously details his tales of desperation, graft, and stress, the music sizzles with the appropriate gravitas. The production was largely handled by No I.D., a Chicago producer best known for his work with Kanye. The result is a singular vision that contributes to the album as a complete work, something that is often lost in the "different producer per song" hip-hop album of today.
Although the album functions best as a complete whole for the narrative scope, of course there are some standout tracks. "Señorita" is one of the best tracks of 2015. Future's triplet sample calls forth like a mantra of a devilish cult. The repetition giving off a sort of uneasy impression of a warped rite. "Loca" positively brims with controlled energy and gives Vince the opportunity to ask the critical questions for potential bae in Long Beach. "What your life like? Would you ride for a n----, die for a n----? Court room lie for a n----?". Another experiment in how hard you can bob your head, "Get Paid" flat bangs. The "ughh" of Desi Mo at the end of the song is one of my favorite small details on the album.
If there was a flaw to Summertime '06, it would be the density of the album. It can be stifling with its intensity. This is not an album to feel better about our world or to augment a beautiful summer day in the car. But I think that is also a strength. The album is like the film "Requiem For a Dream". It disturbs with each time it is consumed, but that power is one of the arts greatest merits.
As a quick aside, it should be noted that some of the most important voices in hip-hop today are emerging from the West Coast. Within the last year, some of the greatest albums in hip-hop have come from California rappers. Kendrick, Y.G., and Vince are proving true luminaries and each has contributed a different perspective and voice to a collective experience. While Atlanta continues to inform much of the sound of commercial hip-hop today, I would argue this is a renaissance for West Coast as a crucial cog in the hip-hop landscape.
Vince Staples has proven he is a crucial voice within hip-hop with the release of Summertime '06. America demonstrates every day, in insidious and horrible ways, its contempt for black Americans . Voices of dissent can be crushed with ease. But Vince Staples is a voice of startling and fix-eyed intensity that has risen from inside the charnel house of crushed hopes and shattered innocence that is inner-city America. In a Pitchfork interview last year, Vince said, "“Where we’re coming from, it’s not cool, it’s not fun, and we’re documenting what’s going on in the world that we live in with this music, so it shouldn’t just be some happy stuff.” He revels in shining uncomfortable lights on the darkness in his community. His voice is startling. His voice holds menace and pain. His voice, as a young, strong, smart, black man, must be heard.