Most people look back at the summers of their youth as a dreamy mix of beach trips, bike rides and puppy-love crushes. But rapper Vince Staples, on his debut full-length Summertime ’06, has different memories: running from police, dead bodies in alleys, gang tattoos (and thus gang beefs) out in the open thanks to the stifling heat. It’s an uncompromising vision of his Long Beach, Calif., upbringing, one packed with enough dour details and bigger-picture philosophizing to fill an hourlong album.
If this sounds like an ambitious feat for a debut LP from a 21-year-old rap rookie, that’s because it is. There’s a lot, sometimes too much, to take in, but Staples has tons to say, in a delivery that finds middle ground between Nas’ wizened rasp and Too Short’s melodic Cali lilt. On “Lift Me Up,” over a distorted bass riff, the former gang member and Odd Future collaborator introduces himself by snarling, “I’m just a n—a, until I fill my pockets, and then I’m Mr. N—a” and describes his everyday fight between aspirations and temptations. On syrupy centerpiece “Summertime,” Staples sings, “My teachers taught me we were slaves, my mama taught me we was kings, I don’t know who to listen to, I guess we’re somewhere in between.” There are detours into love and lust, but they’re brief by design; the album is better-represented by hood-capitalist paean “Get Paid,” in which Staples shrugs off women and coldly recalls selling cocaine with his father from a Days Inn.
The music sticks to this claustrophobic reality in inventive ways: lumbering BPMs, Halloween piano riffs dripping with paranoia, looped murmurs that sound like angry whale songs, lo-fi 808s filtered through fever dreams. It’s not easily accessible, and it’s certainly too long, but Summertime ’06 paints a vivid picture. For better and for worse, there’s no room for celebratory we-made-it anthems, or any semblance of a hit single, in Staples’ bleak world. That would imply a way out, and Staples, who never breaks character, doesn’t see one on this promising, unapologetically dense debut.