Rapper Vince Staples takes to ‘Life’ on the road

SHARE Rapper Vince Staples takes to ‘Life’ on the road
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Vince Staples | James W. Mataitis Bailey Photo

If you’re a ticketholder for either of the Vince Staples sold-out weekend concerts at Metro, come early – especially if you also delight in director Wes Anderson’s fanciful film oeuvre.

VINCE STAPLES With special guest: Kilo Kish When: 8 p.m. Mar. 18; 7 p.m. Mar. 19 Where: Metro,3730 N. Clark Tickets: Sold out Info:www.MetroChicago.com

The acclaimed young California rapper’s first major headlining voyage, christened “The Life Aquatic Tour,” is prefaced by an eccentric screening of Anderson’s 2004 fish-fable fantasia, “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou.” (It runs backwards with soundtrack muted, audio supplied instead by “SEABS,” Staples’ Apple Radio show.)

“I wanted the production to be an experience, so you don’t have to know anything about my music, or me, to enjoy yourself,” Staples remarked during a phone conversation earlier this month, while traversing Idaho by bus with his tour-mate/opening act, singer and multi-hyphenate Kilo Kish. His “Life Aquatic” theme, encompassing even the tour’s promotional artwork, isn’t specifically a Wes Anderson tribute (though the rapper loves star Bill Murray, an Anderson regular). It’s more an extension of Vince’s penchant for marine iconography.

Now 23, Staples survived his perilous youth growing up in gang- and drug-riddled North Long Beach, Calif., at a geographical and spiritual remove from the idyllic, SoCal-seaside milieu long depicted in popular culture. “My Crips lurkin’, don’t die tonight … I ain’t never ran from nothin’ but the police/From the city where the skinny carry strong heat/Norfside, Long Beach,” he spat in 2015 on the blunt (yet affectionate) “Norf Norf,” from “Summertime ’06,” his first full-length release – a double album, in fact, issued by Def Jam.

“Summertime ’06” had followed a series of mixtapes and EPs from 2011 on, an output kick-started by Staples’ new friendships with Earl Sweatshirt, Syd tha Kyd and Mike G, members of audacious L.A. hip-hop collective Odd Future. The know-how and vision of his manager Corey Smyth, whose client credits include Dave Chappelle, De La Soul and Talib Kweli, have continued to cultivate Vince’s career. As taste-making publication The Fader’s current issue proclaims, Staples is “a short-list candidate for the most hilarious, intelligent, and subversive voice in rap.”

“What struck me early on, when Vince was 18, was his combination of focus and ability to listen,” said Smyth. “He’s the type of kid that took what you said seriously.” And what Staples’ manager told him was, “‘I want to slow-cook; I don’t believe in microwaving. We won’t be chasing a hit record, because we’re building you a career.’”

Enter a pair of Chicago hip-hop legends, producer extraordinaire No I.D. ([Ernest] Dion Wilson) and illustrious MC Lonnie Rashid Lynn Jr., aka Common. Through a prominent executive contact at Def Jam, Smyth enlisted Wilson to craft beats for Staples and assemble a team of key supporting players. “What better scenario for a kid than working with [early Kanye West mentor] No I.D., who’s helping him figure out his sound?” Smyth said.

“Dion was putting me around certain people [who]could help me learn” Staples said. One was Wilson’s longtime production subject, Common; the rapper-actor-activist had Vince contribute an incisive verse to “Kingdom,” from his 2014 album “Nobody’s Smiling.”

“I learned a lot from Common and No I.D., whom I greatly respect and appreciate,” Staples said. “If you listen to my music now, [compared to] before I met them, it’s night and day. They taught me how to believe in what I had to say, how to fine-tune things –and also how to just have fun. Coming from artists of that stature, it gave me a lot of reinforcement.”

Staples’ music has unflinchingly chronicled the perpetual struggle that characterizes street life in North Long Beach – not just gang violence and drug violence, but police shootings and other “abuses of authority,” as he put it. Now, his soaring profile enables Staples to support his hometown’s at-risk kids, so often at loose ends after school and on weekends.

Last summer Staples aided in establishing a Youth Institute at the local YMCA, a program that allows 20 eighth- and ninth-graders to learn music production, filmmaking, graphic and product design, and 3D printing. He attended sessions and counseled participants as well: “I made connections with a lot of the kids, and I speak with them on a regular basis. They have my phone number, and they call me when they need help.”

Ultimately, Staples said, “We just want to make an environment in North Long Beach where kids can meet one another and share common interests.”

Moira McCormick is a local freelance writer.

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