Vince Staples is impossible to categorize. A Southern Cali MC who prides himself on his Long Beach bona fides while eschewing the prototypical gangsta rap tag with which he's often mislabeled, he's a natural at bucking the status quo. Yet he also sees clear divisions between art and commerce that lead him to question how institutions choose to define — or fail to distinguish — the two.
So when Staples found himself the subject of a recent Grammy campaign — initiated by Uproxx hip-hop editor Aaron Williams, who likened the EDM sonics of Staples' 2017 LP Big Fish Theory to "a post-apocalyptic pinball machine" — he was less interested in discussing whether or not his album is Grammy-worthy than he was in questioning the very construct upon which the Recording Academy recognizes and rewards genre-bending artists of color.
Despite garnering critical acclaim for his Big Fish Theory, he's poised to become the latest in a long lineage of black artists, either overlooked or underrated, who defy the academy's ham-fisted attempts at categorization. Of course, he has to get nominated first. And considering how slept-on his 2015 debut opus Summertime '06 was, no one's counting on that, least of all Staples.
Rap's relationship with the Grammy Awards has always been fraught. It began with a boycott in 1989. Last year marked 20 years since the creation of the Best Rap Album category. Yet the Grammy's credibility continues to take hits, especially when it comes to getting the genre right. When New York Times critic Jon Caramanica wrote his pre-Grammys' column in January, he devoted it to the academy's chronic fumbling of hip-hop and R&B. But the 2017 award show still encapsulated that disappointing history — from Adele's questionable Album of the Year win over Beyoncé to Drake's complaints about "Hotline Bling" being mis-categorized as rap, simply because he's deemed a black rapper. (Drake decided this year to forego submitting material from his 2017 album, More Life, altogether.)
But Staples' argument is bigger than hip-hop. It's a critique rooted in the racial dynamic that has kept black artists in the industry categorically separate and unequal since the inception of "race music."
In a sense, Staples is the kind of artist the academy tends to clamor over — a major-label signee who subverts mainstream convention. While his peers chase after collaborations with bankable trap producers, his album credits are filled with left-field collaborators Kilo Kish and Zack Seckoff, a young unknown producer largely responsible for Big Fish Theory's industrial-driven electronics.
No doubt, Staples prizes his creative idiosyncrasies: "Hitchcock in my modern day / Where the f*** is my VMA? / Where the f*** is my Grammy?" as he raps on Big Fish Theory's "Homage."
That hard line separating art from commerce hasn't kept him from enthusiastically endorsing Sprite — which, if there were an award for most peculiar pitchman of the year, he'd deserve hands-down for portraying a carnival barker in a Sprite commercial as dry-witted and ironic as his own sense of humor.
So when he suggests, during our hour-long interview, that he deserves 2018 Grammy nods not just in the typical Best Rap Album category, but for Best Electronic Album, Best Alternative Album and the big one — Album of the Year — it's hard to know, at first, how seriously I should take him.
But as our conversation winds through everything from his focus on differentiating himself from the crowd to the creative ambition he admittedly has yet to realize, it becomes clear how ahead of the curve Staples is. It all begs the question whether he even cares about receiving institutional recognition, which is exactly where we started.
Are the Grammys something you even care about?
Yeah, I like all trophies — from Little League Baseball at Cherry Park up to the Academy Awards. Anything to put on my mom's shelf, I appreciate it.
There's always been this question of whether or not the Grammys even knows how to judge hip-hop — let alone whether hip-hop cares about whether or not they get it right.
At this point, I don't necessarily know what it means. I'm 24 years old and there are different awards for different categories. It just depends on what it means to you. If you want that Best Rap Album, then of course. But then it's kind of obvious that you probably won't get Album of the Year. We're not getting many packaging Grammys. It's a lot of stuff that we're not really getting. So, it just depends on what you want. If you have higher expectations than others, it's probably never going to happen. I think one hip-hop album has gotten album of the year, ever. And that was [OutKast's] Speakerboxxx/The Love Below. And they probably got it because [the Recording Academy] was able to say, 'Oh this isn't a hip-hop album.' [Note: Another hybrid album, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, won Album of the Year five years prior in 1999.]
You've said in the past that you don't really care what people think. But in terms of making music, do you have an audience in mind?
No, not at all. I don't believe in catering to an audience. That's what entertainers do. Entertainers cater to an audience. That's the problem. This is the separation of music: What is art and what is commerce? What is music and what is entertainment? Are you an artist or are you an entertainer or are you both? It's possible but not necessarily always subject to be true.
From a cultural standpoint, this has been a kind of a significant year. Institutions that have never really regarded hip-hop are starting to embrace it.
The Kennedy Center Honors announced that L.L. Cool J is going to be its first hip-hop inductee this year and Q-Tip just helped launch its first full hip-hop season. The Black Smithsonian [National Museum of African-American History and Culture] is crowdfunding a big Anthology of Hip Hop and Rap on Kickstarter right now.
See, that's when they lose me.
What do you mean?
Why do why did they need a Kickstarter? They don't want to spend their own money? I feel as if sometimes [institutions] do it because they have to, not because they want to. They can keep that.
It sounds like the question hinges on whether or not these institutions are embracing hip-hop to save their own credibility or whether hip-hop is gaining credibility by being embraced by such legacy institutions
It all depends on what you want, because I don't even know what you're speaking of when you say the Kennedy Center. I don't even know what that is, so it's no legacy for me. It's clearly to help them. And it is to help the artist or whatever, but like I said it all depends on what it is: Are people trying to make art or are people trying to make commerce? That's my question because that kind of dictates everything. I don't really know if people are driving for a rack of awards. A Grammy means something specific; it means you're at the pinnacle of creating music. With that being said, I don't really know if it hits the mark every time because the things that are better don't always win. I don't need any award to tell me that I'm better than everyone else or not better. Differentiation is key to me. I don't really believe in better or worse; it's subjective. When you find other music that sounds like my music, then you can come talk to me about that type of thing.
If we're awarding creativity, then certain people deserve certain accolades. If we're awarding polarization, certain people deserve certain accolades. If we're awarding sales, certain people deserve certain accolades. Because James Blake and Bon Iver win Grammys and they sell 8,000-9,000 records on their first week. A hip-hop album that sold 9,000 records its first week would never get considered for a Grammy. [Note: James Blake's most recent album, The Colour In Anything, sold 9,000 copies in its first week but was not nominated for any Grammy Awards. Bon Iver's 2016 album, 22, A Million, was nominated for two Grammys. It sold 71,000 copies in its first week.]
Why do you think rap artists are graded on that scale, in terms of commerce, more than artists of other genres?
I don't know. What's the difference?
I don't know.
Yes you do.
Because they're black.
And what does that mean? Do you think people that aren't of the culture can't appreciate the art form beyond numbers?
Naw, it's not just how they appreciate it. We tell them that we flop. We tell them that we're [selling] this and we're [selling] that. They don't know anything. They're taking our word for it. It's part of what we deem to be "the culture." So if they're looking at it from outside, they're not really knowing much about what we do. And we're telling them that these are the parameters that make things important. That's how Macklemore beats Kendrick Lamar, and that's how The Marshall Mathers LP 2 wins. That's how these things happen, because we're telling them the parameters for what we think is great.
Which is sales numbers.
Sales, amongst other things. And then you get the "Woo-hoo Grammy" — which is Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp a Butterfly in 2016. "Oh, we're sorry. We missed out. We're going to give you this one." Luckily, he's somebody who deserved it both times. And then you get the Chance the Rapper "We'll look crazy if we don't give you this 2017 Grammy." It just depends, man.
They changed the rules so he could be eligible. Hip-hop is probably the only genre that change truly impacted.
They had to. Hip-hop is the only genre that matters, in my opinion, right now.
It feels like we're in the midst of another golden era. I know you prefer standing apart from the crowd rather than being part of it. But do you look at your album, Big Fish Theory, in respect to everything else that's come out in 2017?
Nah, because then you're not an artist. Or do you mean do I just assess it as better or worse?
Not just better or worse, but contextually. There are some artists who are rapping for the neighborhood. And then there are some artists who are rapping for America. They want the world to hear what they have to say.
I think everyone's rapping for the world to hear what they have to say, no matter what they say. You're selling your story. So how you decide to sell that goes a long way. Saying that you're making music for the streets is cute, but you're really selling music to get it to the most people as possible.
I don't necessarily know of anyone who puts out music on the Internet, on SoundCloud, and plays shows in front of hundreds of little white children who's doing something specifically for the streets. It just makes no sense to me. It's cool to say. But ask YG if he's making music only for the street. He'll tell you no because he's been there and he wants to surpass that. So I feel like that's just a marketing ploy. I don't think anyone is dumb enough at this point in their life to try to make music only for one specific group of people. Now, you can try to affect a specific group of people and give them reinforcement, but that doesn't mean you're only speaking to them. As black as my music is, as black as Solange's music is, as black as the music of an Earl Sweatshirt is, we want white people to hear it.
When I went to your show in Washington D.C. earlier this year, I was surprised at how white the crowd was.
The crazy thing about it [is] that's most hip-hop shows now — when you think about the price point, when you think about the days of the week. You do a show on a Thursday night, Jamal got to wake up and go to work on Friday. He might not be there, especially for $40 to $50 dollars. So it's something that you understand and it's why we try to keep our ticket price low and keep things on the weekends.
But it is interesting, to say the least.
Does that impact the kind of show you put on? Because it's kind of stark. There's nobody on stage but you — unlike most hip-hop shows, where it's about trying to invite the crowd in.
Yeah, it's just not about them. And I think that's a relief in their sight. When you think about a museum, the best art is going to hang on a wall on its own. So I don't really want to involve too much on the stage. I want as little distraction as possible. I want you to look at something and embrace it. I watch movies; I don't go to shows. I've never been to a show in my life that I had to pay for [or] wait in line for. I went to Yeezus, because that's one of the greatest, if not the most creative, hip-hop albums I've ever heard in my life. And it lost to [Macklemore's] The Heist at the Grammys. But that's neither here nor there. So did Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City.
Are you thinking about your next project yet?
Not at all.
When do you start thinking about that?
I'm not really on it right now. I've given a lot for not much in return, so it's time to kind of step back and reassess things.
What do you mean by that?
I haven't garnered what I wanted to create as of yet, so I'm going to figure out how to properly do that. (And when I speak, I'm never speaking about anyone else. This is solely about me.) I've done a lot in the hopes to create something, and I haven't necessarily created that yet to the effect that I would want. So it's kind of time to reassess how I create these things.
Is there a particular message that you still feel like you haven't gotten across?
The message is the easiest part of this whole thing. The hard part of music is designing the product and marketing the product — figuring out what it looks like, what it sounds like, what it feels like, who to sell it to and how to get them to believe that it's more important than themselves. When you've figured that out, that's when you become a star.
Are you interested in being a star?
I'm not necessarily focused on that. It's a lot that goes into that. You spend a lot of time and money on figuring out those kind of things and sometimes people are just blips in time.
It's like the shake weight. I thought about that the other day when I saw somebody running down the street. The world was obsessed over the shake weight. That's [like] every single rapper that came and went. But think about Devo. Think about pop music in the '80s and how fast things come and go. People talk about rappers being one hit wonders. How many one hit wonders do we have that created house music, or that created garage rock, or that created all these different things?
Think about early industrial rock. Think about bands like Throbbing Gristle and Suicide. How many albums did they really have that people were interested in — if one? When you think about '80s dance music, as great as some people might think Falco is, I don't know how long that lasted. I wasn't there, but in retrospect it's not much. It's not a lot that you can really expect of an artist nowadays.
A lot of Big Fish Theory seems to talk about you dealing with, if not the expectations of stardom, maybe some of the anxieties surrounding that. Have you found any that stuff easier to deal with over the past year?
Oh, it's easy to deal with for me. I don't put myself within that world. It's not something a lot of people have the understanding that they can do. If you live 30 minutes outside of Los Angeles, there is no Hollywood Boulevard. So you don't have to worry about those things. A lot of times we put ourselves in this scenario and we don't have to be. But it's fine with me.
A colleague of mine told me that she feels like a lot of people are missing the point of Big Fish Theory. She says it's really an album about love.
Yeah, that's a fair statement. I think music is about whatever you decide that it's about. The simplest thing can have the most complexity. We never know who was thinking what when they wrote this script [or] painted this portrait. We don't know what went through their minds. I know firsthand that the simplest things can mean the most to people. So I decide not to tell them what [everything] means.
But it's interesting to hear you say that you haven't necessarily painted the picture in the exact way that you want to yet. It sounds like you're saying you have not executed your vision to the best of your abilities.
That's exactly what I'm saying, exactly.
Which is wild because, going back to art vs. commerce, there aren't a whole lot of artists in this hip-hop space that are playing with conceptualization and vision on the scale that you are. So to what degree do you feel like you're still lacking in accomplishing that goal?
Well, for one, thank you. It's two ways that it could be said: It could be said that I'm not as good as I think I am, and it can be said that I am that good to where that's not enough. But I think it's a little bit of both. You have to have astronomical goals. You have to want to be better than everyone else in this. You have to want to be light years ahead of what people are doing.
I think about Summertime '06 and how it took two years for people to like the song "Norf Norf." I think about how it took almost a year for "Bag Bak" to be in several movie trailers, and I said put it out early because it's going to take a minute for people to digest that information. Then, with the police and the presidential campaign and all these things coming out, it became more and more suitable. When I say things, I sound crazy at first. So you have to kind of have an extreme belief system in yourself to do what we do. And I feel like I've never had that same belief system from outside sources. But the problem with that is that I've never cared.
Will you be watching the Grammys next January?
I don't watch much TV, so not really. I watch the clips, but I don't really watch much. I watch things that I'm on, just to see how it went. And I watch movies and I watch cartoons.
Who would you like to see nominated in the Best Rap Album category?
Who came out this year?
You mentioned on the Cruz Show early this year, that Kendrick is the best rapper doing it right now.
Oh yeah, definitely, DAMN. should be nominated. Who else came out this year? G-Eazy came out, Eminem's going to come out and Logic came out, so there has to be a white guy there because that's just how it works. I would prefer it be Logic, because I feel like he put a lot into that album. And the suicide awareness song ["1-800-273-8255"] is a great song that should be nominated for Record of the Year.
This isn't labelmate bias we're hearing, is it?
Oh, I don't care anything about that label s***. I don't know who's on Def Jam, to be honest. Courtni [Asbury], my publicist, is looking crazy. I know Logic and I know Alessia [Cara]. That's it.
Rap albums? Let me Google who came out this year.
Jay-Z put out a big album this year. That's kind of a different generation, but.
Uhm yeah, yeah, that should be nominated. Kendrick should be nominated; Jay-Z; if not the Logic song, the Logic album. I haven't heard it fully; I'm going to be honest.
Who else came out?
Are putting yourself in the running?
I think I should be nominated for Best Rap Album, Best Electronic Album, Best Alternative Album and Album of the Year. I should be nominated for score of the year based on the sequencing of the album. But these things don't mean anything. There's no reason why my album shouldn't be able to be in multiple [categories]. You know, they kind of section us off. I don't know if it's intentional or not. I'll never say that. They started giving out contemporary R&B awards in 2003 and I don't know what the f*** that means.
Yeah, I think a lot of people are still trying to figure that one out. There does seem to be a ceiling for black artists — especially hip-hop artists.
Let's not even talk about the hip-hop albums of the year. Let's go to electronic albums that were released in 2017.
[Staples searches for electronic releases from 2017.] OK, so, of every one I'm reading, my album is better than everything I'm seeing right now. And I'm very honest with that. I appreciate people's works and I never want to put myself first, but my album is better than everything I'm reading right now. So I should win electronic album of the year based on my production, alone. But it can't be that because I'm rapping on it — which makes no sense because I'm better than everything right here.
Now let's go to alternative, because the hip-hop is easy. They can put us all in one [category]. But if the argument is that my music doesn't sound like that, let's go to what they say my music sounds like.
That's a good point.
[Staples Googles alternative albums of 2017.] So these are the top ones on the Billboard charts. And I just want it to be known that I've sold more than all of these people.
[Laughs] So that argument can't be made. I got you.
That argument can't be made. OK. Imagine Dragons, Beck — I like Beck — Portugal the Man, and 25 Pilots [sic], Lorde, Lana Del Rey, St. Vincent. So, I haven't heard the St. Vincent album and I haven't heard the Beck album, but those are the only two I would even suggest will probably be better than mine. I like Lana Del Ray a lot. Yeah I don't see six albums here that I know are better than mine, clearly. I see two that I would make a safe bet are better than mine, just based on their creativity and their artistry and with what they put in the music. I'm not half the artist as she is with the St. Vincent project.
But, yeah, let's really talk about it. If we really want to have a Vince Staples Grammy campaign, someone tell me why I can't be in every genre that my music is kind of reminiscent of? Because the argument within hip-hop is that my music doesn't sound hip-hop enough.
When you hear that what do you think?
I think that they're stupid and I also don't care, because I'm not really genre specific. Is Russell Westbrook a point guard, a shooting guard or is he just one of the best players in the league?
You've talked about that electronic sound being such a staple in terms of the West Coast.
That's how West Coast hip-hop started. And no one can tell you different.
True, Uncle Jamm's Army and all that.
How much of your creative process is motivated by wanting to be as different as possible — almost contrarian — to whatever is going on?
None of it. It's not that because I do appreciate what's going on. It's more so me wanting to create something I haven't seen or heard. And I've seen and heard a lot of music. Trying to create something that has never been done is why I do this.
Do you feel like you can do that in this format?
Yeah. Easy. It's just all in timing. But like I said, it's not just the music. Because essentially Big Fish Theory is music that hasn't been made before.
Which was a calculated risk, right?
No, it's no risk. It's never a risk. What do you see the risk as being?
It goes back to your original question about art versus commerce. It's a commercial risk to say, I'm going to step out here and do something of a different musical palette than the genre is sounding like right now.
Well, it all depends on which channel that commercial is on. As great of a song that [Migos'] "Bad and Boujee" is — which I think is an amazing song — that can't be in the trailer to Black Panther. It's a different commercial.
If I'm going to make this kind of music, I'll figure out how to put it somewhere. But like I said, I've made the music that hasn't been made before. It's just I haven't marketed it in ways that it hasn't been marketed before. I haven't designed the product to look a way that it hasn't looked before. I haven't created the visuals to look the way that they haven't looked before. That's when things come full circle.
If you if you end up on that Grammy stage accepting an award, what do you imagine your acceptance speech might be?
Honestly, I doubt it. I haven't done enough. I haven't done the politics. I don't know what the label's done on their end, because a lot of politics are involved in it — which I fully understand because it is a committee and it is an electoral situation. So, I doubt that it happens now.
My only request is that it be broadened, because it's no reason I shouldn't be nominated for everything we just spoke about. It's no reason I shouldn't be nominated for a packaging Grammy. It's no reason because the conceptual nature of my cover and the way that it looked is a great idea for a compact disc. Usually people go all out and put 50 pictures and give you a suitcase full of stuff to win a packaging Grammy. But it's not really about the design of it itself. It's no reason I shouldn't be nominated for that. It's no reason I shouldn't be nominated for electronic and alternative and Rap Album of the year, because if we're pushing creativity and we're doing it get to be creative and to create new things, I don't know what's newer than what Vince Staples is doing. And that's my only conversation.
As far as winning, I know that's not going to happen. But there's no reason that the conversation shouldn't center itself around creativity. Because, if we're going to be honest, it doesn't — especially in the genres in which I'm placed.
Which brings us back to commerce.
Exactly. So if it's an award for commerce, I appreciate their consideration. And if it's an award about creativity, then let's not be silly and pretend it's even close.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.