our year-end best-of week comes to a close with our favorite albums of 2015. we’ll spare you from reading any more; click on each album cover to navigate away to a review – more often than not from this site – that adequately portrays our opinions. as always, our picks will run in alphabetical order, and you can listen to each album by clicking on the link in its title. dive in.
vince staples does not mince words. even back in 2010, when the long beach, california native still treated rapping as more of a hobby, his guest verse on earl sweatshirt’s “epar” was frightening in both its lyrical contents and in its effortless, visceral dexterity. staples is a closer and a chameleon when he guests; on “epar” and on earl’s 2013 cut “hive,” staples conforms to the host’s present lyrical state of mind with ease while often beating earl out for the song’s most memorable line (“ruger with the pork face / jewish for the court case” is one of the more fully-loaded couplets encountered in recent memory).
staples has meticulously crafted his solo career over the past four years in the most logical way possible: picking a bare-bones aesthetic and molding it around his uncanny propensity for unabashed, autobiographical storytelling. this journey took him through a series of yearly mixtapes, a stellar ep from last fall entitled hell can wait, and has culminated in summertime ’06, an ambitious double-album for def jam that also serves as staples’ debut full-length effort.
2014 was staples’ definitive breakout period, and summertime ’06 streamlines the best features of that year. most of the g-funk synth lines that popped up across hell can wait have disappeared, but executive producer no i.d. has front-loaded the album with sub-bass tones to such a degree that any tone in a higher register is relegated far into the background. that’s perfectly fine, though; staples’ nasally vocal register is the perfect timbral foil to the constant subterranean agitation. thematic elements carry over as well, from staples’ fondness of the birds and the bees to tales recounting his youth in long beach. the latter finally feels sufficiently cohesive, as staples is able to dedicate an hour – over the span of twenty rapid-fire tracks – to the subject matter.
a degree of nihilism exists in staples’ lyrics, and its variance has always been his calling card. there is no redemption for his characters, nor for staples himself, but he does allow brief moments of tenderness. on “summertime,” the closing number on the first disc, staples half-sings to a romantic subject, juxtaposing any hopefulness with hopeless lines like “they never taught me how to be a man / only how to be a shooter.” by and large, though, he hones in on the rampant negative stereotypes that pervade black culture and exposes them with the searing, sarcastic opening line on “lift me up,” the disorienting implications of the imagery in the music video for “señorita,” and frequent mentions of police brutality in his neighborhood.
summertime ’06 retains a different level of uniqueness in its place within the landscape of rap music in 2015. this is one of the few albums that, for all intents and purposes, followed a fairly traditional promotional cycle: the project was never shrouded in mystery, it wasn’t dropped unexpectedly nor released weeks before its official arrival date, and it spawned three major-label caliber singles that displayed the diverse capabilities of staples’ minimalist preferences.
staples also seems unfazed by his contemporaries and their genre-bending tendencies; summertime ’06 is devoid of kendrick lamar’s optimistic jazz odysseys, of the atlanta scene’s investment in psychedelia, of the social experiment’s jubilant funk-pop. though he relies on guest artists to deliver hooks on about half of the album, staples is by and large in sole control of its dystopian lyrical direction. in an era where many socially active artists are preaching perseverance in the face of tremendous adversity, staples exists as a stark reminder that any semblance of progress is still in its early infancy.
there is a large percentage of staples’ audience who won’t be able to fully comprehend every facet of summetime ’06, including myself. thoroughly digest, perhaps, but true empathy will be rare. the lifestyle staples details is a reality that comparatively few of us are routinely faced with. instead, summertime ’06 serves as an miniature analog to a larger, overarching discussion of race relations in the united states; vince staples is a representative voice of an oppressed group of citizens, and it’s best to check any form of privilege at the door, shut up and listen to what he has to say.