Vince Staples has a low tolerance for stupid.
If nothing else penetrates the 22-year-old rapper's quiet disdain for the process of answering press questions, that much he'll make clear—especially if you bring up the minor controversy he stirred up online last year, when he dared to question the sanctity of '90s hip-hop. His point—which he reiterates with the pointed enunciation of someone who's sick of explaining himself—was that before the 2000s, rap didn't dominate the cultural conversation like it does now, so the notion of the preceding decade being the form's "golden age" is mostly just Gen-X nostalgia. It's a valid argument. But of course, when the blogs got hold of it, the headline became, "Brash Millennial Disrespects Elders."
"I've never once said I didn't appreciate or have reverence for anything that came before me," Staples says from somewhere in Australia, where he's on tour, his voice settling back into groggy indifference. "It's just that people are stupid. That's really what it falls into. People are stupid."
Staples may have never said he doesn't respect the past, or the culture of hip-hop. But one thing that's true about him—and part of what makes his own music so potent—is that he's not in thrall to it, either. He says he had no rap idols growing up. A product of Long Beach, Calif., and a former Crip, he saw through the studio-gangster façade at a young age, and being the next Snoop Dogg is never something he aspired to. (He doesn't smoke weed, anyway.) Asked what compelled him to eventually get on the mic, he responds like a politician explaining an adolescent shoplifting charge: "Because I was a kid, and kids do what their friends do."
Now that he's made rap a career, what motivates Staples is simply the desire "to make good music," and what that means to him has little relationship to any obvious tradition. Summertime '06, his debut double album, is gangsta rap insofar as it draws directly from his time as a teenage gangbanger. But the production, from Clams Casino, Def Jam maestro No I.D. and others, has an eerie, dystopian feel, more Cormac McCarthy than Beats by Dre. Staples is a gifted lyricist, but his gift is not clever punch lines or cinematic storytelling. It's his ability to lock eyes with the listener and drag them into his worldview. While Kendrick Lamar—to whom Staples is often compared, though their only real connection is that they made by consensus the two best rap albums of 2015—grapples with turning pain into hope, Staples deals in blunt-force realism: No abstract images or poetic metaphors, just the dead bodies in the alley as he saw them. Staples once compared his music to a video of an ISIS beheading; it's a window to horrors most of us would otherwise prefer to ignore.
Also, the dude is pretty damn funny. Speaking to him while he's touring in another country perhaps isn't the best way to draw that out. But on Twitter and the videos he's done for GQ, the full view of Vince Staples comes into focus—that of an exceptionally sharp, somewhat insular kid, whose knack for seeing through the world's bullshit extends to jokes ragging on Chris Paul and hip-hop fashion trends. It's tempting to wonder if his growing reputation as a dryly snarky talking head will dilute the unsettling power of his records. But maybe that's just another stupid question.
"I don't care about fucking image. I make music, bro," he says. "Black people are the only ones limited to do one thing. If it's a black dude who's a rapper, he has to be a criminal his whole life. We don't look at the hardcore rock acts and all these other people to be that person 24-7. So I don't think I have to fall into that bullshit, either."
SEE IT: Vince Staples plays Hawthorne Theatre, 1507 SE Cesar E. Chavez Blvd., on Sunday, Feb. 28. 8 pm. Sold out. All ages.