NPR MUSIC: VINCE STAPLES TALKS GRAMMYS
VINCE STAPLES BELIEVES HE DESERVES ALL THE GRAMMYS, BUT HE ISN'T HOLDING HIS BREATH
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 mis-labled, 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 " — 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. to "
Despite garnering critical acclaim for his , 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 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 . 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 critic Jon Caramanica wrote his pre-Grammys' column in January, he devoted it to . 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, , 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 '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 '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 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.
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.
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] . And they probably got it because [the Recording Academy] was able to say, 'Oh this isn't a hip-hop album.' [ The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, ]
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.
See, that's when they lose me.
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 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. [, The Colour In Anything, 22, A Million, was
I don't know. What's the difference?
Yes you do.
Naw, it's not just how appreciate it. tell them that we flop. 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 wins. That's how these things happen, because we're telling them the parameters for what we think is great.
Sales, amongst other things. And then you get the "Woo-hoo Grammy" — which is Kendrick Lamar's 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 had to. Hip-hop is the only genre that matters, in my opinion, right now.
Nah, because then you're not an artist. Or do you mean do I just assess it as better or worse?
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.
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.
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 , 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] at the Grammys. But that's neither here nor there. So did .
Not at all.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
That's exactly what I'm saying, exactly.
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 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 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.
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 came out this year?
Oh yeah, definitely, 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.
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 at me crazy. I know Logic and I know Alessia. That's it.
Rap albums? Let me Google who came out this year.
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?
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.
Let's not even talk about the hip-hop albums of the year. Let's go to electronic albums that were released in 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.
[.] So these are the top ones on the charts. And I just want it to be known that I've sold more than all of these people.
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.
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?
That's how West Coast hip-hop started. And no one can tell you different.
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.
Yeah. Easy. It's just all in timing. But like I said, it's not just the music. Because essentially is music that hasn't been made before.
No, it's no risk. It's never a risk. What do you see the risk as being?
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.
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.
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.