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Vince Staples has come into his own. The Long Beach native has always proudly repped his “regularness,” even as he was honest and unflinching about the darker parts of his upbringing. Now he’s enjoying a career that feels hotter than ever; he’s earned widespread praise since 2017s Big Fish Theory; with a popular run on the hit sitcom Abbott Elementary and his own project, Netflix’s The Vince Staples Show, earning raves and Donald Glover comparisons.

But Staples has made it clear he has zero interest in the trappings of success. He famously still lives in his native Long Beach and shuns the glare of Hollywood. He’s collaborated with everyone from Kendrick Lamar to Mac Miller but keeps his projects close to the vest without always going for splashy guests. Even his latest album arrives with an announcement just days before its release.

From even before his official Def Jam debut, Summertime 06, Staples has always offered a clear-eyed take on his youth in the Ramona Park neighborhood of Long Beach. Since his first mixtape, Staples has used wit and clarity to talk about the gritty truths of what he was exposed to and participated in, but he doesn’t always present those stories and reflections with what could be called “commentary.” It’s so matter-of-fact that it just sounds like him musing on his surroundings. And that’s typically where the most honest art emerges. His deadpan persona makes it seem like he delves into the harshness of his environment with an almost aloof quality; when in reality, his candor about his pain amplifies the depths of it. It sharpens his introspection to the point that it could cut glass.

Fielding consistently strong production from RAHM, Michael Uzowuru, SAINT MINO, Benny Bock, Teej and others, Dark Times mines that introspection even more openly than Staples is known for; the sarcasm that could sometimes inform his more unsettling asides is muted here as compared to previous releases like the stellar Big Fish Theory and continues more in the self-probing vein we’ve seen since the maturation throughout 2021’s masterwork Vince Staples. Going inward isn’t at all new territory for Staples, but he seems more comfortable with the uncomfortable than ever.

Opening with the natural sounds of “Open Your Eyes and Swing,” Dark Times immediately tonally shifts with the thundering “Black&Blue,” with Staples rapping “we still on some nigga shit” over a track that moves with the kind of dusty vintage organ that’s ominous but with an atmospheric soulfulness that would make Danger Mouse jealous. Vince’s laid back lyricism is best showcased on “Government Cheese,” where morbidity (“everybody gotta die”) lingers. Amidst the angst of reflecting on “making it,” he grapples with success while watching peers and loved ones ensnared by death and crime. When Staples murmurs the “don’t forget to smile” hook, it’s hard to tell if it’s optimism or dry irony.

“Children’s Song” is a highlight, all jittery drums and twangy guitar lines, as Vince Staples reminisces about banging, sounding almost wistful with just enough menace as an undercurrent. Murky lead single “Shame On the Devil,” features Baby Rose on the chorus and epitomizes the album’s tortured soul. Spirituality and frustration are interwoven in the lyrics, with Staples’ prayers and Rose’s ghostly vocals serving as a balm for the angst throughout the track.

“Etouffee” reads like a love letter to New Orleans rap circa 2000, with lyrical references to Big Tymers, B.G.’s Chopper City In the Ghetto and a coda that features some sonic nods to Mannie Fresh’s classic productions. It’s a sleepy party track peppered with Cash Money interview snippets and mentions of Staples’ own familial connections to Louisiana. It segues into “Liar,” an interlude that’s basically just the famous 1973 exchange between Nikki Giovanni and James Baldwin during their appearance on PBS. It’s a telling inclusion, as that conversation between two luminaries features Giovanni famously castigating Black men for smiling for the world while bringing their anger home to their woman.

“Lie to me…fake it with me,” Giovanni famously says — before the album delves into a trifecta of songs about love, heartache and relationships. “Justin” is a story song about Staples falling for a beautiful woman from Qatar, with a chorus intimating that “women lie a lot.” He starts nostalgic on “Radio,”; reflecting on listening to KDAY and hearing his father and older sister’s favorites before shifting to a woman he loved who criticized rap misogyny and who left him pining for her to the tune of beloved R&B songs by everybody from the Jackson 5 to Brandy. The somber “Nothing Matters” quotes the classic Lauryn Hill/D’Angelo “Nothing Really Matters” duet as Staples again muses on betrayal (“Why you would you tell me you love me when you don’t?”) with an assist from vocalist Maddy Davis.

The more anthemic energy of “Little Homies” celebrates life while also offering cautionary advice to the young kids coming from where he’s come from. The “life hard, but I go harder” is both fist-pumping and a warning — triumphant but wary.

“Freeman” wouldn’t be out of place on an Organized Noize project of yesteryear, and a rare moment of basking in the fruits on an album with no shortage of guilt and inner conflict. “Don’t be a crab in a bucket, be a Crip at the Ritz,” as he outlines Netflix deal demands and struggles with praise — it’s a succinct closing argument on an album where much of the insecurity of being Vince Staples is laid bare. And “Why Won’t the Sun Come Out,” a dreamy conversation with Santigold closes things, over twinkling keys as the rapper/singer shares her musings on human existence.

Vince Staples’ growth as an artist has been compelling to witness. A critically acclaimed run of albums and a surprise hit Netflix series has made the 30-year old a critical darling but he’s gotten there without the inescapable pop culture presence of some of his also-lauded peers. His smartassery sometimes overshadows how jarringly prescient his observational voice can be; and his rejection of superstar status can downplay just how remarkable this run has been. He’s in that sweet spot of having far reaching acclaim without soul-stifling fame.

Obviously, Vince wouldn’t have it any other way.

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