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Vince Staples Confronts Reality in “Dark Times”

While the project’s beats and layering are simplistic, “Dark Times” is impressively cohesive, with plenty of seamless transitions and deliberately selected monologue samples to reinforce the album’s dark vibe.
While the project’s beats and layering are simplistic, “Dark Times” is impressively cohesive, with plenty of seamless transitions and deliberately selected monologue samples to reinforce the album’s dark vibe.

In a surprise release preceded by less than a week’s worth of promotion, Long Beach, Calif. rapper Vince Staples returned to the rap scene’s center stage with his sixth studio album, “Dark Times,” May 24. 

“Dark Times” marks the satisfying but unspectacular conclusion to Staples’ time at Def Jam Recordings — a Universal Music Group-owned label boasting a top-tier crew of artists like 2 Chainz, Big Sean and Armani White. Staples aims for authenticity over streams and navigates complex topics in the project, but sacrifices the addictive sound required for an unforgettable album in today’s rap music scene.

The album lacks a hit song like Staples’ northside anthem “Norf Norf” or his melodic 2022 single, “Magic,” which cracked one of former President Barack Obama’s widely-publicized summer albums. However, each song meshes collectively for a thoughtful product.

While the project’s beats and layering are underwhelming, “Dark Times” is impressively cohesive, with plenty of seamless transitions and deliberately selected monologue samples to reinforce the album’s dark vibe. 

Known for his sarcastically cynical outlook, Staples excels lyrically when delving into hardship, using his experiences as both a testament and a warning. Staples wields his teenage experiences as a Long Beach Crip in “Children’s Song,” repeating the harsh dangers of street life. 

“Don't play with my Crippin’, go play with your kids,” he pleads. The dichotomy of Staples’ recanting of a significantly heavy subject with such casual, even flippant language is stark.

Staples — formerly associated with Tyler, the Creator’s group Odd Future — revels in his departure from Def Jam on “Freeman,” a notable track on the new album. He remarks that “It feels good to be a free man with clenched hands / I used to pray to find a way to make a label advance / But nowadays 100k ain't even getting my glance.”

On the album’s first full-length song, “Black&Blue,” Staples controls the tempo through clear, isolated vocals and a catchy hook while reflecting on life in his Southern California cliques and the tragedy of fellow rappers’ premature deaths. He repeats, “I look in the mirror and see somethin' missin' / I feel like it's you / I know that it's you.” Though the track attracts listeners with its energetic drum-kicks, sampled from Thee Sacred Souls’ “Weak for Your Love,” Staples’ lyrics hold a more serious meaning, preaching the perilous reality of senseless violence.  

“Étouffée,” the record’s other highlight, is a comparatively upbeat track where Staples’ flow shines on top of a catchy beat with hard-hitting 808 drum beats. He pays homage to the rap-culture of New Orleans with monetary flaunts of “grills,” “glitz” and “glamor.” The track, unlike others on the album, feels unique — Staples even calls himself a “martian” on the song’s chorus. He interestingly contrasts his current life as a big-time artist with the more unpleasant truths about coming up in the city, adding lyrical substance to a track that stands out on the album for its fun vibe.  

“Dark Times” epitomizes the album’s departure from Staples’ recent excursion into comedy. He broke into the world of television entertainment with “The Vince Staples Show,” a Netflix series he writes and stars in, produced with collaboration from Donald Glover — an actor, producer and rapper known in the hip-hop community as Childish Gambino. The album shares the television show’s tense examination of racial dynamics but spares the dilution of comedy through Staples’ well-known deadpan humor.  

Staples’ vulnerability is evident in his frequent references to heartbreak and plainly-stated depictions of a bleak reality. He shares multiple stories, most notably in “Justin,” where he delves into a tale of deceit in a conversational manner, matter-of-factly detailing a forgettable night tarnished by a cheating partner.  “Justin,” like the several other interlude-type songs on the album, is rather unconventional in contemporary rap releases as Staples elects to talk rather than rap. 

“Dark Times,” like some of Staples’ other projects, is only as long as Staples feels is necessary to get its message across — in this case, a quick 35 minutes. The album’s intention is to share a dark reality with listeners, in Staples’ uniquely sarcastic form, and it succeeds, so long as they listen without commercial comparisons and expectations.  

Closer listeners encounter the album’s jarring political and social realism even before playing the project’s first track — bluntly titled “Close Your Eyes and Swing” — with the album cover displaying a blurry noose, a potent symbol representing American racism and white supremacy. The song — 31 nearly wordless seconds of peaceful ambiance, concluded by a striking reference to the dreadful American history of lynching — clearly establishes the album’s uneasy and unconventional tone.

As the album progresses, Staples continues to reflect on the past, frequently referencing his childhood in Long Beach's Ramona Park neighborhood. He reveals how instances in his upbringing have shaped his current outlook.

On “‘Radio,’” he reminisces about the comfort music brought him during his youth, with Smokey Robinson, the Jackson 5 and Roberta Flack providing the soundtrack to his early encounters with romance — when his outlook on rap and love were different.  

On the track, Staples pleads to a radio DJ for help with a love interest. He recounts a conversation with a girl who criticized the misogyny in rap culture, saying, “When we met, she told me she don't ever listen to rap / I asked her ‘Why?’ she said ‘No man should speak to women like that.’” A young Staples responds, “What you say in a verse means somethin' different / but to me, they just words.”

While it may not have the commercial appeal of his earlier hits, “Dark Times” succeeds in its authenticity and introspective depth. “Dark Times” underscores Staples' evolution as both an artist and individual and provides a raw and unfiltered narrative that resonates deeply with keen listeners.

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