Vince Staples : Dark Times

Vince Staples new album Dark Times

Let’s not overthink things: Vince Staples is a good rapper and this is a good rap record. Done, right? And yet it feels unsatisfactory. For one thing, this is his fourth good record in a row, following the span of FM!, Vince Staples and Ramona Park Broke My Heart. But that’s precisely the problem isn’t it: that’s four good albums in a row, good, but not great, not like Big Fish Theory, which still sits comfortably next to Summertime 06 as his most satisfying complete project. Each of those records, the first two of which functionally being closer to EPs given their roughly 20-minute runtime, mined a small circumference of sound, a viable experimental strategy following Big Fish Theory‘s explosive release. For instance, if you rewind the clock seven years, we wound up naming it album of the year despite it not topping any of our individual lists, being one of the very few records to place in the upper stratosphere of our independent ballots regardless of whatever genre space we each happened to be mostly digging that year. That’s earned time between major projects in any language and I suppose given the 40-minute runtime of Ramona, that one would count. And yet when it came to that one, I found that despite clocking multiple listens to it, something about it slipped out of mind; on asking around the writers’ room, I found this sentiment was mirrored everywhere, everyone recalling enjoying it but many not finishing and those that had being incapable of recalling much of anything.

And so we get to Dark Times, an album that sits at a cozy 35 minutes across 13 tracks, features throwback beats replete with that boom-bap big drum sound, guitars and organs, elaborating on the Ramona post-Motown sound despite, unlike that previous record, being on Def Jam again instead of Motown. Back to that first line: Press play, minimize or tab out of this review, and kick back for about 30 minutes. Good, right? You’d be hard-pressed as a rap fan to name me a major issue with this project. His flows are laid back, leaning way into the pocket without feeling out of time. The lo-fi trad hip-hop sound scratches a natural itch for any decent rap fan and the lyricism sits on the darker edge Vince leaned back to on Ramona, abandoning a lot of his funnier bars without getting too “conscious rapper” on us. There’s no complaints to be made. It’s solid. Now click back here and recall a line. Hum a beat to yourself. It’s tricky, right? And that’s suspicious to me; Vince can absolute punch higher weight than this, has turned in exciting records both in the mainstream and avant-garde sounds. Hell, his guest turns on everything from Flume to Gorillaz to Tyler, the Creator and Earl Sweatshirt cuts prove he still knows how to lay down masterful brushstrokes on otherwise finished works. The problem is he’s good now but he used to be great. And that rankles.

I’m breaking a rule of mine, of course. Good criticism isn’t a critique of some made up super record that exists in your mind only, comparing the record that is with the record you more or less made up for shits and giggles. You can’t endlessly hold people even to their own standards; people change, and the artist of today isn’t the same one who made the art of yesterday, even if their name is the same. By that metric, feel free to ignore my grousing; like any given Griselda crew record or billy woods joint, you’ll find yourself pleased. Lord knows the vibe is right on this album, reflective of current comfort but cognizant of the struggle it took to get here, neither overly mournful or self-help braggadocio bullshit. But it’s hard to believe if this was the record that came out in 2017 that Vince would still be a must-hear as he is for us now. Lord knows given the plethora of frankly terrible rap acts going there’s always room for good, solid hip-hop, stuff that nails the fundamentals, that feels like mid-period Snoop Dogg in the way that it executes relentlessly. But at the end of the day, do you spin Paid tha Cost to Be da Boss or do you spin Doggystyle? This is one of the times I wish we had number ratings: this is the most savage I can possibly be to an 8/10 rap record. Know what I mean?

Label: Def Jam

Year: 2024

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