In any of the numerous creative writing workshops I’ve taken in my life, I’ve always heard the same remark made about how to write a great protagonist. By no means does a protagonist have to be a good person. Empathy is the key to writing a great character and evoking an emotional response from the reader, viewer, and in Vince Staples’ case—listener. Staples’ spent a lot of Summertime ’06 telling you how cold-hearted he is, but it’s far from the case.
Right away, Staples isn’t a sympathetic narrator on ’06 as he raps on the thunderous opening track “Lift Me Up”, (“All these white folks chanting when I asked ‘em where my n***as at? / Goin’ crazy, got me goin’ crazy, I can’t get with that / Wonder if they know, I know they won’t go where we kick it at”). Staples is being jarring on purpose to set a tone. White indie kids (like me) will always like Staples despite having no idea what it’s like to live the life that he portrays on this album. But ’06 is an album that doesn’t feel too exclusive and deserves to be shared by a diverse audience. Back to “Lift Me Up,” which is an essential song on ’06, and establishes some of the major motifs and universal themes of the album, which include hypocrisy, the deficiencies of pop culture, African American prejudice and stereotypes, and hip hop stereotypes, all with some impeccably skillful bars.
On the surface, it would appear that there are a lot of classic gangster rap tropes in ‘06 but it would be like comparing Weeds to Breaking Bad—two TV shows with drug-dealing antiheroes. That pretty much ends the similarities right there. Staples has some West Coast hip hop flare mixed with some Andre 3000, but other than maybe a little influence or inspiration, Staples makes a point to carve out his own niche and avoid rap clichés. On ’06 standout track “Señorita,” Staples’ opening line is nothing short of canny and biting as he boasts, (“F**k ya dead homies”). How many songs have you heard about paying respect to your “dead homies?” Some hip hop sub-genres rely on this specific hip hop trope as the lyrical meat of their music (Chicago drill, I’m looking at you). So Staples, again, is alienating himself, by expressing how fed up he is with other rappers talking about the same thing over and over, right? Not exactly.
‘06 has its fair share of social commentary, but the album is presented more as memoir than the pitch-black satire it is at times. This feels like a deeply personal album that moves primarily through Staples’ relationship with some unidentified girl as his muse. Think about the way Sherane fit thematically in Kendrick Lamar’s coming-of-age classic good kid, m.A.A.d city, as a physical and metaphorical being at the heart of the concept of the album. Staples moves in and out of different topics and themes such as fear, pain, family, nostalgia, race, the media, hip hop, pop culture, social class, depression, reality, idealism, violence, and love but it all returns to this relationship Staples has with this girl. In “Norf Norf,” Staples is introducing himself to this girl as someone to be afraid of. Then he enters a sort of honeymoon phase with this girl in “Loca” and “Lemme Know,” as the two really start to become passionate. The relationship gets pretty tumultuous by the time “Jump Off the Roof” rolls around, as the two are struggling with separate drug habits and thoughts of suicide. Then Staples’ subsequent fear and excitement hit the album’s ultimate crescendo by the time “Señorita” comes on. The last instrumental minute of “Señorita” may sum up Staples’ impressive grasp of pathos as well as any one moment on the album. The songs burst to a climax like the sonic manifestation of gusting winds and gushing waves, all until it comes to a twinkling, haunting fade-out by the closing seconds.
By the end of the crushing beauty of “Señorita,” the track “Summertime” presents itself as a moment to catch your breath—but instead, I held mine. If the rest of ’06 is the thunder then “Summertime” by itself is the rain. It’s a cathartic release of the tension in the songs that surround it. Staples takes a song to allow himself to be vulnerable. (“My feelings told me love is real / but feelings known to get you killed”) are just a couple of lines that identify who Staples is as a conflicted, complex, thoughtful character, as he empties his heart out to the girl he has been with through the album. ’06 is the story of a kid who grew up having to repress his feelings. ’06 is an album for anyone who knows what pain feels like and what it means to hold it in. Pain makes people disoriented, angry, and scared—all emotions expressed viscerally on this album. Staples did what writers of any genre of art would be envious of—he created a character that anyone can feel for and relate to ( when I say character, I’m not saying that Staples is exaggerating or fictionalizing anything he raps about on ’06, by the way).
Summertime ’06 is more than a masterpiece hip hop album—it is a beautifully written story with a dynamic, imperfectly human protagonist.