'Ramona Park Broke My Heart' Is the Quintessential Vince Staples Album
Published Apr 08, 2022For better or worse, Vince Staples has always proudly been a product of his environment.
The 28-year-old rapper has confidently claimed Long Beach, CA, as his hometown from the outset of his career. He has often contextualized the stories present in his verses by sprinkling in street names and local landmarks, giving a certain tangibility to the tales he tells. While the city, specifically his Ramona Park neighbourhood, has served as the primary setting for much of his music, it's also an integral character in his story. He's made it apparent throughout his catalogue that Long Beach has been invaluable to who he's become, but with Ramona Park Broke My Heart, he takes a step back to examine this relationship, its pitfalls and its impact on his life.
This project is an incredibly multifaceted look at how Ramona Park and the surrounding areas where Staples spent his formative years have informed his worldview and shaped him as a person. In a tracklist that touches on topics such as street life, love, family and wealth, his neighbourhood serves as the backbone of every song. It's an incredibly admirable and equally ambitious concept that feels like the culmination of his work up to this point, both sonically and thematically, while still setting itself apart by showcasing Staples's versatility in his approach to the music and his abilities as a rapper.
Ramona Park Broke My Heart is Staples's attempt at creating the quintessential Vince Staples album, and he has succeeded in doing so. His vocal approach on a majority of these songs is similar to the calm, conversational cadence present across most of his critically heralded 2021 self-titled release, its instrumentals are the most traditionally West Coast since 2018's FM!, and in several moments it shares the same juxtaposition of Staples's grim observations of reality over bouncy, upbeat production as 2017's Big Fish Theory. It's a near-perfect encapsulation of every enticing aspect of his previous work, wrapped into one project.
This feat wouldn't be possible without Staples's broader understanding of his relationships with both the music and Ramona Park itself. While he's often been characterized as a nihilist, Ramona Park Broke My Heart makes it clear that this is not the case — his bleak worldview has been informed by the ups, downs and general dysfunction he'd experienced growing up in and around the neighbourhood. He has an incredibly complex relationship with the city and his experiences there, as he will nostalgically reminisce on simpler times, while also exploring the horrors and heartbreak that he still lives with to this day. Whether looking at the positive or negative aspects, he understands just how foundational the city is to who he's become and his understanding of the world around him.
This is reflected throughout the lyrics in much of his discography, though never as sharply and as viscerally as it is throughout this project. On the bouncy Tommy Parker and Saint Mino-produced "ROSE STREET," Staples delves into the realities of pursuing a relationship while remaining loyal to the streets and "married to the gang," juxtaposing harrowing lyrics ("Reaching for my keys, she like, 'Where you going? Stay with me' / Hate to see her beg, she don't want me dead / Posted on the block, when it's war, ain't no warning shots / Bullet hit his top, all his homies ran, his body dropped") with an infectious, head-bobbing instrumental.
"WHEN SPARKS FLY" is essentially Staples's take on 2Pac's "Me & My Girlfriend," an ode to his pistol personified as his partner. Staples puts a unique spin on a well-trodden premise — where similar songs romanticize the relationship, he explores the negative emotions and eventual turmoil that result from their union. The track is accented perfectly by skeletal-yet-smooth R&B-tinged instrumental provided by Kenny Beats, built around an airy sample of Lyves's "No Love." This song is not only a massive highlight here, but is a major accomplishment in Staples's catalogue and is one of the most well-written songs he's ever released.
Another major standout on the record is "EAST POINT PRAYER," the unexpected collaboration between Staples and Lil Baby, which sees the pair reflecting on the hardships they've overcome on their respective roads to success. Rather than boasting about the resulting wealth or luxury, their verses highlight the resilience and tenacity it took to conquer the odds. The album's lead single "MAGIC," produced by Mustard, is a celebration of this journey as Staples (channelling Long Beach legend Kurupt) emphasizes his love for his hometown, and the reciprocated reverence that the people in it have for him (well, most of the people — the ones down the street likely still hate him). These two tracks complement each other extremely well, as "MAGIC" feels like the victory lap resulting from everything Staples describes enduring on "EAST POINT PRAYER."
Ramona Park Broke My Heart is special. It's a project that stems from an artist not only reaching a new plateau creatively but a new level of self-awareness, clarity and understanding that they've seamlessly translated into their art. It's an incredibly honest and intimate showing that builds off of the foundation of last year's eponymous LP, allowing fans to become even more familiar with who Vince Staples is as a person and the city that shaped him. This is easily his most ambitious, personal and hard-hitting work to date. (Motown/Blacksmith)