More predictable guests, like A$AP Rocky and Juicy J, are deployed as sonic accents, while Kendrick Lamar — who shares Mr. Staples’s steely clarity and dexterousness, but lacks his sense of humor — is made to rap over a clanging obstacle course of a beat by the left-field dance producers Sophie and Flume (“Yeah Right”).
It’s the fog-cutting lucidity of Mr. Staples’s lyrics that keeps his hip-hop auteurism grounded; he is routinely penetrating on recurring themes of suicide, self-loathing, self-love, cycles of violence and human intimacy. “How I’m supposed to have a good time when death and destruction’s all I see?”
Asking when I’m gon’ blast myself
Couple problems my cash can’t help
Human issues too strong for tissue
False bravado all masked by wealth
Over the phone during a car ride to the airport last week, Mr. Staples detailed his approach to “Big Fish Theory” and some of the more unrealistic expectation of today’s rap audiences. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
You’ve spoken in the past about how there’s “never been two types of a David Bowie album. Every project has to stand on its own.” Has that turned into a defining principle of your career?
I wouldn’t want to repeat my steps — I want something different every time. A lot of artists are like that: Kanye is like that; Donald Glover is like that; Tyler, the Creator. That’s definitely what I want to do.
Do you think West Coast rappers, in particular, can get pigeonholed to a specific sound?
No one’s ever sat in the studio and told me what to sound like. That’s an outside-looking-in thing. People don’t expect Dr. Dre to sound like Del [the Funky Homosapien], Del to sound like the Pharcyde — these people don’t sound the same. YG doesn’t sound like Earl Sweatshirt, and on and on. I don’t know if I’m paying too much attention to what people think certain things are supposed to sound like. That would defeat the purpose of being an artist — you’re supposed to have a pure vision.
Is that not hip-hop? The biggest Gorillaz song to date, possibly, has a De La Soul feature. Sophie’s making beat music — that is something that is very much within hip-hop. These distinctions are just to help consumers to figure out what they’re buying — it’s the produce section or the dairy section, putting sounds that are similar next to each other. But when you’re creating music, anything is fair game. Things like that don’t cross my mind as much as the level of their talent.
You’ve never been shy about touching on politics, but the most explicitly topical material on this album is “BagBak”: “Prison system broken, racial war commotion/until the president get ashy, Vincent won’t be voting.” Did you ever think about going that direction for a whole album, given the climate?
I don’t really pay attention to politics like that. Where I come from, it’s been the same for 30 or 40 years. Growing up as a kid before Obama, the president never had anything to do with us. I don’t shun people for being focused on that, but it’s just not my fight and it doesn’t have to be. At the end of the day, these people voted for whoever’s in office and that says more about them than it does about the person who’s holding the position.
How do you think the Odd Future moment that you came from influenced where rap is today?
Everybody has a group of friends and the branding is very similar. Young rappers searching for these identities. The merch space grew a lot because of [Tyler, the Creator] — the pop-ups, the brick-and-mortar stores. We have the Odd Future stores and then you have the OVO stores, the pop-ups from Kanye and Travis Scott. Tyler created a space for other rappers to try on these lifestyles.
You keep making this joke: “Lemme sell my 5k albums in peace.” You’re a niche album artist in a singles and streaming moment. Does that give you more freedom?
You can have freedom regardless. Look at Lil Uzi Vert as a prime example. Someone who is driving in the streams and he has complete freedom in what he creates.
But does it help you that you’re not chasing having a big single?
You’ll find something to chase if you want to chase it. You can chase having a perfect album. I can chase having a classic, having a flawless album, having a 20-song album. I’ll find something to chase.
You’ve developed a sort of side gig as an internet commentator. Do you ever worry that Vince the personality is bigger than Vince the musician?
People are able to be multifaceted and do different things. I don’t have a problem with it at all. Maybe that’s the transition — you never end up where you started, just look at Will Smith. I don’t undermine any part of my personality. People could not care at all.
Do you think it’s brought people to your music?
Absolutely. It’s obvious.
You’re also very adamant about breaking the fourth wall — telling people that rappers who take pictures together for Instagram aren’t really friends, that cars in videos are probably rented. Do you think fans see through that stuff or just eat it up?
It has nothing to with the rappers; it has everything to do with the way we’re told we have to perceive ourselves to be important. If a rapper didn’t feel like that they had to do that to be important or respected — call artists broke, make fun of this person’s outfit, make fun of this person’s car…. If a rapper could drive a Toyota without getting clowned, then they would do it. It’s more about the perception: You have to be larger than life, you can’t be a regular person. They’re doing what they have to do to get heard and appreciated and not made a mockery of.
You’ve also rejected this idea of the erudite gangbanger, the quote-unquote serious rapper. How do you avoid being put in a box built around stereotypes?
I just don’t like that because it’s demeaning to where I come from, my people, my community. Everyone has to be something else — they can never just be their name. It takes decades to just be your name.