Interview by Kilo Kish
Images by Dave Naz
“Creating music is self-inflicted pain because you don’t
have to do it. It’s a sacrifice you have to make
to bring something beautiful to the world, and that’s
something I’m willing to deal with.”
— Vince Staples
Born and raised in Long Beach, California, Vince Staples is a rapper and songwriter whose debut album Summertime ’06 (2015) met with critical acclaim. Staples has been affiliated with Cutthroat Boyz and Odd Future, and collaborated with Ghostface Killah, Earl Sweatshirt, Mac Miller, Common, No ID and Teyana Taylor. He has been recording since 2011, and has released five mixtapes and EPs, most notably Hell Can Wait (2014). Staples recently released his second EP Prima Donna, which debuted with an accompanying short film, and features A$AP Rocky and Kilo Kish.
Kilo Kish is the stage name of musician, artist and fashion designer Lakisha Kimberly Robinson. A graduate of the Fashion Institute of Technology, Kilo Kish released her debut EP Homeschool in 2012. Her mixtape K+ released in 2013, paired with a homemade zine, and her second EP Across released in 2013 in conjunction with Maison Kitsune. Kilo Kish has collaborated with the likes of Childish Gambino, Star Slinger, SBTRKT, A$AP Ferg, Earl Sweatshirt, Matt Martians, Vince Staples and Chet Faker. Her debut album, Reflections in Real Time, released earlier this year.
Long Beach native and rapper Vince Staples opens his newest EP, Prima Donna, by singing “This Little Light of Mine” with such weariness that his vocals are barely audible. As he finishes with “let it shine,” a gunshot cuts through. This broken lullaby recalls the opening track of his 2015 debut album Summertime ’06, situated in Staples’ childhood neighborhood of Ramona Park and challenging racism, injustice and its violent fallout on the streets. Prima Donna showcases a surprising variety of production styles without sacrificing Staples’ raw integrity and lyricism, focusing in on the new pressures of his celebrity.
The seven-track EP is accompanied by a short film in which Staples spirals through a fever dream to Prima Donna’s songs—a strange cab ride to a hotel is punctuated by hallucinations of fame, including African dancers, priests, paparazzi and crowds of fans banging down the walls of his room. The theme of ‘Is it real?’ similarly appears throughout the album—from Staples going crazy “at the Marriott having Kurt Cobain dreams” to “Smile” on which he repeats, “sometimes I feel like giving up,” so many times it begins to feel like a mantra. Pulling from life without sparing the good, the grim or his confusion about it, Staples’ subversion is in crafting genuinely catchy music while speaking truth to power; it’s where his preternatural talent is sharpest.
A$AP Rocky features on Prima Donna’s title track and longtime friend and collaborator Kilo Kish lends her vocals to “Loco.” Kilo Kish talks with Staples about the strange realities of fame, returning to his hometown of Long Beach and why he never dreamt of being a rapper.
Kilo Kish: I met you a really long time ago—the first time I tried to make music, you happened to be in the studio that same day. When did you start making music?
Vince Staples: Six months before I met you, around the same time.
KK: What projects were you working on at that time?
VS: I didn’t really have a project. I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do and how I was going to do it, learning the basics. For me, it was figuring out how to start making something. There’s a lot that goes into taking your creative thought process and trying to get it out to other people. That’s when the hard work and the practice come in. And that’s what I didn’t have at that time, so I looked at everything to figure out how to translate it from my head to a piece of paper to another person. It’s a three-step process.
KK: It was a little bit nerve-wracking being at a real studio in the midst of other artists, but having you and Matt [Martians] there was helpful. He gives you that confidence in the beginning to trust your gut and your own creativity.
VS: Those people [early on] are the only reason I’m able to do what I’m doing today. That environment gave me the confidence and the assertiveness to get my craft to the level it needed to be, so I could become successful. Matt said that I used my circumstances as an excuse. He’d say, “If you want to be okay, you have to be able to do it.” He put it in my head that [working on music] was my only option, which it honestly was, and I needed it at the time. It drove me.
I would look at my friends and people I knew,
and I just couldn’t drink 40s and
end up getting fucked over in the long run.
— Vince Staples
KK: Give me the picture of your home life at that time: where you were, how old you were, all of that. What made it seem so dire?
VS: I was about to turn 18. I wasn’t in trouble. I had already escaped the urban situation and all that shit because I was old enough to be done with it. I was trying to get a job, but I couldn’t and didn’t really know what I was going to do with my life. I knew that my momma wasn’t going to be able to take care of me anymore. All that piled up. I would look at my friends and people I knew, and I just couldn’t drink 40s and end up getting fucked over in the long run.
KK: In your subject matter—and I wonder about this for rappers in general—why is there so much about where you come from, Long Beach?
VS: A lot of time, for black males in general, it’s because we don’t know who we are. You’re told, “You are a product of your environment.” A lot of times all you are is where you come from. For instance, Eminem and Detroit, Jay-Z and Brooklyn, Dr. Dre and Compton. No matter how much or little they talk about it, that is who they are. In my opinion, you are your environment. Nine times out of 10, if your surroundings aren’t that good or up to par with the American Dream, it keeps you down. If you can look outside of your environment, you might feel like you can surpass what your environment might be.
KK: And do you feel like you’re still a product of your environment?
VS: I do, but because I left, I see what my environment really is. I went on tour for a long time—that was the longest I’ve ever been away. When I came home, I looked around, and everything was fucking different. My perception had changed. I noticed that, especially in Long Beach because that’s the place I know, motherfuckers say it’s the ghetto; it’s this and that; it’s a bad place. But for the most part, it’s pretty fucking nice and quiet. Everywhere has its problems, but if you walk around like there’s a war going on, you’re going to treat it like it’s a war zone. That’s what we were doing, for no apparent reason. When I was able to escape for a little bit and go do something else with my life, I saw that it wasn’t that bad.
Everywhere has its problems, but if you walk
around like there’s a war going on,
you’re going to treat it like it’s a war zone.
— Vince Staples
KK: What other subjects interest you in your work?
VS: Uncertainty. I’m somebody who thinks too much. Uncertainty, for the most part, about women. I can’t escape them. Every single one of my songs is about girls—nine times out of 10, the same one. Even my most creative shit always comes back to the same point, because you are what you create. For the most part, I never had dreams when I was a kid. It was never, “I want to be this when I grow up.”
VS: I never thought that I was going to have a chance. It was going to be too late; something was going to happen that was going to keep me from reaching my full potential.
KK: Do you think uncertainty is a common theme now because you’re actually doing what you never saw yourself doing? Is it somewhat of an internal battle?
VS: It is. The fact that your whole life is focused on something you could never have envisioned just shows that you don’t know if it’s going to end.
KK: Yeah, and that’s scary as hell.
VS: It is. No matter how successful you are, it reconfirms the fact that you don’t know what the fuck is going on or what the fuck you’re talking about.
KK: For me as an artist, one of the hardest questions you can get from someone is: How would you describe your music? You definitely make rap music, but the production style is varied. Is this purposeful?
VS: Up until 2014 when Hell Can Wait came out, I had never really made any music that I wanted to make. And even then, the only songs I really wanted to make were the Teyana Taylor song [“Limos”], “Blue Suede” and “Fire.” I didn’t want to make “65 Hunnid,” “Screen Door,” or “Feelin’ the Love”—I didn’t like the production style on those.
So that’s when I stopped caring. I told myself I couldn’t make music that I couldn’t listen to anymore. I had reached the point where I was going through a lot of shit in life—a lot of my family was incarcerated; I watched my cousin—my best friend for most of my life—die in the hospital then come back to life. After that I was like, “Fuck it, I’m going to do what I want because this doesn’t mean anything anyway.” That’s when I became successful. Sometimes it might not translate well, but it’s what I want to hear. I want to be able to listen to what I make.
I told myself I couldn’t make music that
I couldn’t listen to anymore.
— Vince Staples
KK: You just put out an EP—how do you know when it’s finished?
VS: I feel like it’s never done, so it’s usually when you don’t know what to do anymore or feel like it’s okay. You have to know when to let go.
KK: Do you agree with the doctrine of performing the “hits”? Or if you’re no longer connected to a song, do you feel that it’s still necessary to perform it?
VS: I don’t think it’s necessary. You can have a good show without doing the hits. I look at performances like film: In action movies, the kidnapping scene is vital, the car blowing up is vital, the shoot-out is vital, but can you still have a good movie without those things? Yes. If you can make those types of films without the stereotypes of the film, you’ve made a greater film, in my opinion. So if I’m making a show, and the show is going to be a visual and auditory experience like a film is, I should be able to use creativity to engage people. Familiarity and creativity don’t always go hand in hand. I watched the Sia performance without knowing any of her songs, and it was one of the greatest shows I’ve seen in my life.
KK: What is your relationship to performance versus recording and writing?
VS: Performing is always great, but is in no way on the same plane as writing. Performing is repetition; you learn how to perform. You can’t learn how to write a good song with conviction. You can learn how to craft bars and things like that, but not how to evoke emotion; that’s something that happens or doesn’t. That’s why writing is interesting to me and probably my favorite part of the process, because it’s hardest for me to do.
KK: Are you a pretty quick writer?
VS: Yeah, definitely. I write fast, but I don’t gain the ideas fast.
KK: I want to talk a little about Prima Donna. I saw the film and it really resonated with me. I gathered that much of it addressed what we were talking about before: internal struggles of the artist and how they are perceived in the public eye.
VS: Exactly that. This was never a dream I had growing up. Sometimes we can get blinded by our own expectations, but I never had any expectations, so I’m able to pay attention. I’m always sober, so I notice a lot—[the public] doesn’t care, for the most part. I can see how easily somebody can take away the credibility of your work, your craft, ignore the fact that you have an actual life, and be focused on what they want for you. You’re an action figure and they want to pick the way that you pose.
KK: I think people ignore that to be creative and to make things is to be perceptive and sensitive to the world around you. To be hypersensitive. A lot of the pressure and the framework of life is exposed to us, and we try to make sense of it through expression, but there are still a lot of questions and no one really has the answers. You see your heroes and people who are more successful, and they’re still struggling with the same things that you’re struggling with. No one’s found the complete answer. It’s really hard because you have a public that in some ways doesn’t really understand you the way you want them to. It’s a battle between your own internal conversation versus the conversation that you’re having with the public, and the conversation that the public is having with you and about you while you’re not there.
I’m 26, and I still struggle with all the ways of being. There are so many ways you can choose to be in life, and they’re all accessible. You can fake one way or another, or you can just do whatever. It’s nice that you’ve found freedom and understand that people sometimes are not going to understand. You just have to go on doing what you feel is right.
I feel like I’ll always be okay because this
is the best-case scenario for my life.
I had literally nothing else—no support system,
no real family, no real friends.
— Vince Staples
VS: And that’s the reason a lot of my favorite interviews get fucked up—people are kind of crazy sometimes. I said once that I want my music to make people feel uncomfortable, and they took it as some kind of ‘black plight’ to make people feel like they are unwelcome in my world. No matter what I say in my song, it always goes back to being sad, black and a gangbanger. When I said that I want people to feel uncomfortable, that wasn’t anything racial or locational, just that music isn’t always made from the purest place or from the happiest or saddest place. I want people to understand, but I also want them to listen to a song and wonder where it’s going. I want them to be unsure of what things are, and that’s one thing that I’m doing more. Maybe I’m losing fans…
KK: There are so many questions. The better that you get at making things, the more options present themselves to you, and it becomes overwhelming. Right now, especially with media, it’s really hard because it’s like, “What are the bullet points about this artist?” Nobody is that one dimensional—not only artists, but people. It’s a weird framework to work within.
How do you relax if you relax?
VS: I don’t know if I do. [Laughs] I just try to ignore it all. I find happiness and relaxation with my family. If my mom’s okay, I’m okay. I have to think about it because I never stop working. I’ve been touring a lot, and have been home very few weeks out of this year. It’s sometimes hard for me to be stuck inside something I created. I’m trying to come to terms with it and figure out how to still create my music.
I feel like I’ll always be okay because this is the best-case scenario for my life. I had literally nothing else—no support system, no real family, no real friends. I had nothing left that would make me okay. So if i can deal with a little bit of confusion or struggle I’m fine, because that’s what my life was. I’d rather not know who I am than not know where I’m going.
KK: For me at least, I don’t really think about myself or who I, Lakeisha Kimberly Robinson, am as long as my art can live. I honestly wish that I didn’t have to exist—that only the art could exist and be a living, breathing person without me, but it can’t. So sometimes struggle, confusion, madness or creativity is a necessary evil. This has been a kind of dark interview…
VS: I feel like it’s a good thing. This is one thing I know for a fact in life: the greatest things are created from pain. Through pain, we create life. And if there’s one thing we know, it’s that most of the greatest pain is self-inflicted. That’s what this is. Being a creative person, creating music, is self-inflicted pain because you don’t have to do it. It’s a sacrifice you have to make to bring something beautiful to the world, and that’s something I’m willing to deal with. Because there’s a reward, and a lot of times there’s no reward. This is a great reward