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No Echo Chamber

Google “Vince Staples” and you’re likely to be fascinated by the headlines for hours:

“Vince Staples to retire in 2017”

“Vince Staples started gangbanging to kill people.”

Click a couple pages in and “Vince Staples is the ‘Anti-Rapper’ of our time,” or “Vince Staples has 100,000 points at GameStop,” or the viral video of a mom crying at the profanity in his lyrics. The rabbit hole is endless. Ask him about only a few of those “results” and the response is nonchalant, perhaps his personal rebuttal to “fake news.”

“You can Google a lot of weird shit these days,” the 23-year-old California native says in the middle of moving from one Los Angeles address, to presumably a more comfortable Los Angeles address. “That doesn’t mean any of it is true. I never said I would retire. That’s something that was taken in the wrong context.”

Welcome to “Trump’s America.” In a few short weeks that sarcastic sentiment has become as much a part of the nomenclature as the two-way shrug of “Thanks, Obama.” Leading up to my brief, but complex, interview with Staples—and even in the seconds before I spoke with him—Def Jam made it explicit that there were to be no questions about the current clown-in-chief and politics.

It’s apparent that Staples doesn’t want to add to the echo. He’s not supposed to have the answers. That’s not what he’s paid to do. “BagBak,” the lead single from his sophomore album, released to coincide with his headlining “Life Aquatic Tour,” tells both the president and the government to “suck a d*ck,” if you need his position made any clearer.

Twenty-fifteen was as big a year for Staples as it was a contentious year in hip-hop. Not for any feuding or lyrical scrapes, though there were a few, but for the clout to say you had one of those epic albums that people will laud, dissect, teach, bang, and talk about for a long time to come. Staples’ debut, Summertime ‘06, was one of those records, filled with the eyewitness accounts of a skateboarding, book-loving, teen dragged into gangbanging and other nefarious deeds as a generational Crip. It’s the magnification of one moment in time (Summer, 2006), one neighborhood (Ramona Park), one street (Poppy), spoken in cinematic vignettes, and matched with gritty, dystopian beats.

By being more Faulkner than Public Enemy, but with the same sharp scope of a beat-reporter’s bluntness, Staples created monolithic mirror pointed at any oppressive systems with the same no-filter as Ice Cube in his prime. Which has now posited him as a “working-class rapper,” or “starving artist,” something that’s he’s had trouble wrestling with on the brink of stardom.

“I mean we are all working, right?” says Staples. “So we’re the working class. There’s no government aid for rap. It’s not a trade, you know? We make music. I’m not sure what I’d do if I didn’t do this … probably be a cameraman in the movies or something. I never really had a dream.”

Indeed, the ruin of Ramona Park didn’t produce dreams. But Staples’ rise wasn’t the textbook escape from the streets. It was pure accident. Releasing mixtapes in the company of Odd Future and Earl Sweatshirt, he still had no ambition for a life in rap until Def Jam took notice in 2012, signing him to a lucrative deal as their next superstar.

His deft mix of dark humor, conscious observations, and the edict that there’s no glory in the gang, makes him unique among contemporaries like Kendrick Lamar and J. Cole. Staples’ art exists in a balance where he can spout ghetto braggadocio (the aforementioned First fellatio) and raise the conversation of the inner city at the same time. Behind the mic, he’s a firecracker live, injecting the usual hip-hop show with the catharsis of an aggressive punk set, something he’ll be ratcheting up on a larger stage.

But over the phone, he’s quiet and modest, and would rather talk about how the “pistol-popping” Poppy Street of 2006 is much different in 2017. Investing in the local YMCA, his civic pride has had substantial results.

“It’s much nicer to live in that area now,” says Staples. “I’m very excited at all the changes that have happened there. The people that live there have much more pride in the community now than when I was growing up there.”

That “change” runs parallel with Staples’ upward climb. For those urged to resist “Trump’s America,” it’s been underlined that progress will be achieved one neighborhood at a time over the next four years. Staples certainly doesn’t want to be a role model, but his constant barrage of unspoken truths in his words and the magical realism of his art is becoming increasingly inspiring with each new venture. That’s something that’s not lost on a true man of the people.

“I’m always doing new things,” says Staples, when asked about the immediate future. “I’m always working with new people and trying to make things bigger and broader. Always pushing forward.”

Staples’ “The Life Aquatic Tour” stops at the Newport Music Hall on Wednesday, March 22. Visit vincestaples.com for more information.

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