Vince Staples – Dark Times

An intense, insular record...

Recent events in rap’s upper firmament have reinforced the conversation surrounding the so-called Big Three: Kendrick, Drake, and J. Cole. The question on this writer’s mind, however, was this: why the hell exclude Vince Staples? A figure who is perhaps comfortable being a rap outlier, he’s nonetheless created a catalogue that is – pound for pound – the equal of his peers, consistently defying expectations and crafting a unique sense of world-building.

The follow-up to his outstanding opus on adolescence ‘Ramona Park Broke My Heart’, ‘Dark Times’ finds the West Coast rapper in adulthood, surrounded by the trappings of success. Succinct – an atmospheric intro, an atmospheric outro, and 10 songs – it’s bold and to the point: be careful what you wish for.

‘Close Your Eyes And Swing’ is a drifting digital cloud that seems to slow down time, before ‘Black&Blue’ comes shuddering into view. With its old school turntable sweeps and rock hard beat, the party feel is suddenly distorted, with Staples’ ominous bars conjuring a veil of isolation.

‘Government Cheese’ finds the rapper fading, his voice barely able to be discerned above the crackle of the arrangement. ‘Children’s Song’ ups the beat a little, no less abstract but a little more direct, a little more inviting. 

As ever, Vince Staples’ choice of beats is fantastic. The tones on ‘Shame On The Devil’ sound like steel pan drums, while one minute refresher ‘Liars’ – the point where the vinyl gets turned over – is an abstract electronic piece presented without rap on top.

When ‘Dark Times’ opts for directness, however, the results are spellbinding. 2017 album ‘Big Fish Theory’ absorbed beats from club culture – in particular house – and ‘Little Homies’ picks up on this. It’s typical of Vince Staples, though, that in the wake of Beyonce and Drake’s experiments with house, he opts for something left-field – it’s a lo-fi house beat, the degraded analogue tape the perfect counterpart to his probing vocals.

Murky ‘Freeman’ questions the meaning of success, the dank, oppressive production reminiscent of Portishead’s masterpiece ‘Dummy’. Indeed, there’s a further trace of UK production on closer ‘Why Won’t The Sun Come Out?’ which sounds for all the world like a homage to Boards Of Canada.

It’s natural that fans will compare ‘Dark Times’ to what has preceded it, but that’s perhaps unfair. ‘Ramona Park…’ was a bravura work of therapy, a rap bildungsroman that crafted an entire world. More insular, ‘Dark Times’ is in many ways less accessible; that said, it refuses to let the quality dim, it’s endless stream of ideas enticing and perplexing in equal fashion. In emphatic style, rap’s foremost outlier demands your attention all over again.


Words: Robin Murray

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