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Vince Staples

Hip-Hop/Rap

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It opens with the ephemeral sounds of nature. Birds, bugs, and airy notes chiming in the air. Then, the undercurrent of something darker, disrupting the fantasy: a distorted voice. "To live is to be," the voice says, "Like the nigga in the tree." This is how Dark Times, Vince Staples' eighth studio album, begins.

It's a new era in the prolific artist's canon, a muscular and revelatory work refining elements that have been present in his catalog for the last decade: dense lyricism over lush, layered beats; wry, melancholic observations about life; finding pockets of light in an endless dark. For Staples, the album is "a snapshot" of this period of his life.

"It's been 10 years since I started putting things out properly," he says, referencing his first EP, with Def Jam in 2014, Shyne Coldchain Vol 2, "I don't really keep track of any of that stuff, but it's important to take a second to appreciate the journey." The title came intuitively to Staples after he listened to the record in full, noticing heavy motifs that kept reappearing. The album cover, featuring a faintly seen noose, was similarly intuitive.

Staples began recording the album over a seven-month stretch, during weekly sessions in North Hollywood. At the time, he was in post-production on his critically acclaimed Netflix series The Vince Staples Show, which he wrote, produced and starred in. Working on the show was "very, very instrumental in how I view creativity," Staples says. The TV series, an intensely collaborative project that took millions of dollars and hundreds of crew and cast members, was a stark contrast to the way Staples works when he's recording music. "You can sit by yourself and create it," he says. "It made me appreciate the simplicity of the process even more."

He maintained that simplicity in various ways, including the decision not to feature other musicians on any of the 13 tracks. "I had a clear vision for the project," he says of Dark Times. Though Staples has memorable features on past records--such as Kendrick Lamar rapping over a beat by the late Sophie on 2017's Big Fish Theory--Darkimes felt like a solo journey. Instead, the guest voices on the album are limited to samples, friends popping up in the studio, and a narrative outro by Santigold, the iconic alt singer-songwriter, who tells Staples about an apocalyptic, yet awe-inspiring dream she once had.

On the track "Liars," Staples also includes an iconic excerpt of Nikki Giovanni and James Baldwin in conversation in 1973, debating about Black love. "Lie to me, smile," Giovanni declares, urging Black men to show Black women respect and care. "That was one of my non-negotiables," Staples says of having this interlude on the album, inspired by Giovanni's persistence. "She was very adamant in what she was saying, and she was going to get her point across."

The first release from the album, "Shame on the Devil," is a perfect introduction to the spirit of Dark Times. For Staples, the song is a personal achievement. "It's me mastering some things I've tried before that I wasn't great at in the beginning," he says. "It's a testament to musical growth, song structure--all the good stuff." The track features Staples rapping over a warm, spectral beat, ruminating on how anointed his life is now, in spite of bouts of loneliness and fallouts with friends. "Mission complete, out of the mud, labeled a 'leader" they following cuz," he raps. "Light on my feet, floating above/I don't be creeping or keeping in touch."

He's similarly introspective in "Government Cheese," rapping about an imprisoned friend who calls him up after seeing him on TV. "Asked how he was/Said he seen me on ABC/Told him that I was good/Wonder if he believed," Staples raps. A few lines later, Staples talks about the death of his older brother, and how it humbled him, forcing him to reflect on the fragility of life in a new way.

Staples balances out the melancholy with celebratory tracks, including "Étouffée," a bouncy ode to his familial roots in Louisiana, and "Little Homies," a word of encouragement to the younger generation, the chorus of which flows like a mantra: "Life hard, but I go harder/Streets cold, but the road taught us/Concrete where the rose blossom."

In "Freeman," the final song before Santigold's outro, Staples reflects on his life with cool bravado: "It feels good to be a free man with clenched hands/I used to pray to find a way to make a label advance/But nowadays 100K ain't even getting my glance/Ain't even setting up no meeting 'til they meet my demands." But as the song progresses, he drifts into a more zen place: "I understand I'm just a grain of sand and life is a beach/Only heaven knows whichever way I'll blow in the breeze."

The lines mirror Staples's entire philosophy about making Dark Times. "It's a testament to where I am right now and how I view things--it's just a timestamp," Staples says. "I might not feel like that again tomorrow. But in the process of making this project, these were the things that spoke to me."

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