Vince Staples Closes a Chapter with 'Dark Times'

BY Wesley McLeanPublished May 28, 2024


When Vince Staples signed to Def Jam in 2013, we knew him as a young, undeniably talented albeit somewhat raw and unpolished MC hailing from the north side of Long Beach, CA. Over a decade later, the 30-year-old rapper is one of his generation's most celebrated talents, responsible for some incredible moments of unwavering experimentation and a continuous artistic growth rivalled by very few.

With Dark Times, Staples's last release under the Def Jam umbrella, he's crafted his most vulnerable release yet, one that, despite the heavier themes, almost feels like a victory lap. This is the work of an artist who's learned from and built upon everything he's released thus far, most notably his previous two releases, Vince Staples and Ramona Park Broke My Heart. As a result, Dark Times feels like a fitting final act in an unofficial trilogy.

An incredibly concise and cohesive project, Dark Times clocks in at an airtight 35 minutes across its 13 tracks. For most of its runtime, Staples is as reflective as ever, reconciling with his past and moving forward without creating too much distance between who he is presently and where he comes from. This has been a throughline on most of his projects,  juggling the duality between his past and present lives, and the guilt that comes with it. As he's grown further from the streets he once called home, he's always shown an astute understanding of the balancing act that comes with fame and wealth.

This sentiment is best exemplified on the sombre "Government Cheese," more specifically its melancholic second verse. As he rolls out of the gloomy hook, repeatedly reminding himself to smile through life's hardships, Staples details a recent phone call with a friend serving time. When asked how he's doing, he replies that he's well, but notes that this is a lie, wondering if his dishonesty and true feelings are noticeable. He begins questioning what kind of friend he would be to complain about his struggles while this brief phone call is a fleeting moment of freedom for his friend. This feeling blossoms as the verse progresses, with Staples acknowledging the guilt that has accompanied his success, noting that, "It's hard to sleep when you're the only one livin' the dream."

Moments like this showcase how sharp Staples's storytelling abilities have gotten, with this being one of his most remarkably written tracks yet. It's also a full circle moment for fans, as the blaring synth from his 2014 single "Blue Suede," his first for Def Jam, eerily echoes in the background of the LeKen Taylor-produced instrumental throughout the hook and outro.

This isn't the only nod to Staples's previous work throughout Dark Times' runtime. It's a trend that lends to the feeling of finality on the LP; The album's biggest standout "Étouffée" houses a few references to Vince's past projects, from a straightforward mention of sophomore album Big Fish Theory to a much more elusive callback to the chorus of "Fire," the intro to his debut EP, Hell Can Wait.

The track itself is an homage to New Orleans bounce and the early days of Cash Money Records and features what may well be the catchiest hook Staples has ever written. While the chorus is rife with references to the Louisiana-based label, the verses remain incredibly personal. After the first verse detailing his label wanting him to "bring the streets back" after the release of Big Fish Theory, he goes back to his neighbourhood in the second verse, showing out and showing love for his hometown, noting that, "The ghetto will trap you, but I love it."

Building upon that notion further, he wraps up his third verse proudly stating that he finds, "The beauty in the dark like Rembrandt" regarding his past and where he's from. As the final chorus ends, the track concludes with a break that channels that oft-sampled bounce staple "Drag Rap" (more commonly known as "Triggaman") by the Showboys.

The record's last song, "Freeman," has a deliberate sense of finality in its presentation. Opening with a warm, almost celebratory sample that abruptly stops and gives way to a sleek, subdued bassline and sparse drums leading into Staples's verse, it's a proud declaration of his newfound freedom as an artist. He reflects on his journey thus far and his position in the world,  presenting himself both as a beacon of hope to kids from his neighbourhood and an insignificant grain of sand on the vast beach that is existence, with no control over what comes next for him. Grim as his outlook may sound, Staples appears to be at peace with whatever the future holds, echoing that "it's all good" as the track fades into the outro.

When Vince Staples dropped in 2021, it felt like a turning point. As he veered into more personal territory, honing in on a new sound and vision, he built upon it further with Ramona Park Broke My Heart, which has now culminated here. In the three acts of this unofficial trilogy, Staples has given us his self-portrait, followed by a world-building love letter to his hometown and insular reflections on his life experiences and their effect on him. Despite how dark things may be, the constant throughout Staples's story has been his desire to move beyond life's obstacles. On Dark Times, it feels like he truly has.

(Def Jam)

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