California rapper Vince Staples has never been one to hold back on the grisly details while painting a picture of life in his Long Beach hometown over the course of his career, and his fifth studio album Ramona Park Broke My Heart, named after the neighbourhood that he grew up in, feels more like a documentary than ever before. Many of the first Yelp reviews of the neighbourhood that you see are mostly positive, describing the boundless entertainment and amenities around, but most also draw reference to shootings and violence – a sentiment that Staples’ music mirrors. Throughout the project, it often feels like Staples and the listeners are collectively trying to have fun listening to some tunes at the beach, but the horrific reality of life in the city keeps interrupting. Eventually, it becomes commonplace.
With a shoutout to G-funk icon DJ Quik on one of the track’s titles, this is Staples at his most laid-back as he reflects the music that would have been popular as he was growing up in the area, abandoning his more aggressive and spastic flows and leaning harder into West Coast-styled pop-rap, old-school percussion and an emphasis on beachside vibes. The rubbery basslines and repetitive, infectious hooks often make it feel like Staples is aiming for a couple of radio hits while still trying to get his message out, but sprinkling in bars about violence affecting his most mundane daily decisions is highly effective in doing so. It gets to the point where we breathe a sigh of relief when a track ends in a series of loud pops, but they reveal themselves to be fireworks rather than gunshots. Staples has often been one of the genre’s biggest masters of mixing together party-starting rap bangers and an overhanging important message, and this might be his finest achievement yet in that area.
Best Track: MAGIC (Ft. Mustard)