Album Review: Vince Staples—“Summertime ’06”

By James Li

“Love will tear us apart.” Vince Staples announced his debut album Summertime ’06 with that iconic Joy Division lyric. Like Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, m.A.A.d city or YG’s My Krazy Life, Summertime ’06 is a coming-of-age tale. In this case, it’s set in Vince’s native Long Beach – the city where the skinny carry strong heat. Vince named his album after a summer that marked an end of innocence – when many of his friends ended up dead or incarcerated. If Vince borrows anything from Joy Division, it’s a sense of despair – and he makes the LBC in the summer seem like the coldest place on earth.

That despair is reflected in Summertime ‘06’s production, handled mostly by Kanye mentor No I.D., with help from Clams Casino and DJ Dahi. It’s just as cohesively produced as Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, but Summertime ’06 is its antithesis. Kendrick’s album is vibrant and groovy, but Vince’s is cold and alienating. A lot of that is in part to No I.D.’s drum programming. The Neptunes-like beats – especially on “Jump off the Roof” and “Señorita” –click, rattle, and skitter, creating a claustrophobic atmosphere.

Album art for Summertime '06

Album art for Summertime ’06

That anxiety permeates Vince’s stories, too. Summertime ’06 follows the same narrative arc as good kid, m.A.A.d city or My Krazy Life – our young protagonist gets caught up with drug dealing and gun-slinging, and turn to sex, money, and religion for solace. But these things are little relief. “Señorita” takes its hook from Future’s “Covered N Money,” but Vince doesn’t bask in wealth – he’d rather spend his money on a Mac-10 than designer jeans. And on “C.N.B.” religion offers little solace against racial violence: “No hopes and dreams, just leave us be, we leanin’ on the Bible / They preyin’ on us, praying for a better day tomorrow.”

The SPIN review for this album unfairly characterizes Vince as a “squinting, mostly unfeeling brute,” but he’s too nuanced for that. He’s a drug dealer on “Dopeman” then on the next track, “Jump off the Roof,” he’s a desperate love fiend. On the Clams Casino-producer slow burner “Summertime,” he’s surprisingly vulnerable. “They never taught me how to be a man, only how to be a shooter,” he confesses.

So while Vince plays the stick-up kid on tracks like “Get Paid”, he’s conscious of the violence and injustice that surrounds him. On the opener “Lift Me Up,” he wonders why waiters and shopkeepers treat him poorly or why his white fans “won’t go where we kick it at.” The interlude “Might Be Wrong” contains a voicemail poem inspired by recent events: “Hands up, don’t shoot. Shot. Stand your ground. Blacks don’t have ground to stand on, so we stand on our words.” On “Surf,” he observes the impact of teen pregnancy in his community: “In the Planned Parenthood playin’ God with ya mom’s check / You ain’t even been to prom yet.” That anti-abortion sentiment might come off as conservative to some listeners, but like Kendrick Lamar’s admonishment of black-on-black crime on “The Blacker the Berry,” sometimes the most powerful messages are the one’s we don’t agree with.

Vince’s fixations are morbid, but not exactly brutish or unfeeling. There’s a sense on Summertime ’06 – from the matter-of-fact storytelling and spartan production – that Vince is keeping you at arm’s length. It’s like what he says on “Summertime”: “My feelings told me love is real / But feelings known to get you killed.” But make no mistake about it: Summertime ’06 deals deeply with love. And love will tear us apart. (Def Jam)

Listen: “Señorita”

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