Taking a closer look at the first episode of "The Vince Staples Show" and the accompanying music.
Vince Staples’ newest release, “So What? (Episode 1)”, proves that he is one of the most creative and intelligent artists today. The release was accompanied by a video that is the first episode of the web series teased in this trailer for The Vince Staples Show. In the trailer, Staples issues instructions from the driver’s seat to two boys sitting in the back of his car. He reminds them that they “signed up for this” and that he’s unsympathetic to cold feet. In order to prepare for their task, he tells them to reach under the seats in front of them— and they pull out boxes of candy bars. The definition of bathos (the opposite of ‘pathos’) is: an effect of abrupt or ludicrous transition created by anticlimax. In this case, from the suspenseful/ominous to the trivial. Staples uses this humorous subversion of expectations to his advantage in both the song and video for “So What? (Episode 1).”
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First off, let’s examine the song as an audio experience. Staples is unpredictable and not infrequently described as a nihilist. The new song showcases these qualities front and center. When you think he might get preachy, he 180s: “This is for my fans who are suicidal/Why kill yourself when you can go and kill a rival?” The lyrics have the Staples-standard-nihilism and a wry sense of humor. The chorus is a rhetorical question (“Why they hate on me?”) answered by the title of the song. The laid back, unhurried sound of the track meshes with the unbothered tone of “So What?” as a response. The synth quality of the song makes it sound like alien music— like something you might hear in The Simpsons when a UFO is abducting people (more on this later). There are shades of indifference, but the prevailing message of the song is that Staples is so accustomed to being hassled (“the media be on my dick, they wanna cop a feel”) by the police, the media, and haters in general that his only reaction is bored exasperation.
There are only two verses and some of the lyrics are opaque, which makes understanding the song (beyond the main gist) an exercise in speculation. That being said, I don’t think “So What? (Episode 1)” is meant to stand alone. It’s an introduction to The Vince Staples Show, but it’s also more than just a theme song. It carries out an important preemptive strike against Staples’ critics. Regardless of how The Vince Staples Show is received, Staples has already dismissed responses, reviews, and commentary on his work. Think whatever you want about it, make a reaction video, write a meandry article, love it, hate it— he doesn’t care.
Staples released two videos in conjunction with “So What? (Episode 1).” The first was a standard lyric video. It uses barbershop imagery, which mirrors the setting of the web series episode. The episode itself is directed by Calmatic, who also directed Staples’ Google Earth inspired “FUN!” video.
Calmatic has an eye and a sensibility that complements Staples’ work beautifully. Together they create videos with full-blown concepts that do not overpower the artistry of the song. The danger with ‘concept album’ and ‘concept video’ is that the entire work is in service to the capital-C concept, which relegates the music to afterthought status. An easy example is Eminem’s Relapse. While it has cult status in some circles, the album is appreciated in spite of the fact that the prominence of the concept meant that songs were shoehorned into the conceptual framework. Staples and Calmatic evade this pitfall deftly in the “So What? (Episode 1)” video.
"Web series" smacks of something hyper-internet. It calls to mind a host talking into the camera, stylized jump cuts, and maybe a guest or two. But “So What? (Episode 1)” is something unique. It’s comedy and drama, action and social commentary. The vibe I got— and that I hope continues in later episodes— was The Wire, if it had been given a slick, self-aware Hollywood treatment. It starts off in the territory of realism. Staples receives a phone call, he’s told he needs to get himself ready for Malia Obama’s 21st birthday, he goes to the barbershop. The barber needles Staples for having corded headphones (“Even Ray J got some Raytroniks”). Then at a minute thirty, it becomes clear what the conflict in this story is going to be.
The barber turns Staples around in the chair and sitting on a red couch are two dead-eyed men wearing red shirts. Staples makes a point of ignoring them and turns up his headphones. A child rips Staples’ headphones out of his ears and the song starts playing through his phone speaker. The lyrics announce Staples’, um, partiality for the Crips. The tension mounts and you’re prepared for some tragic, senseless violence to ensue.
But Staples eschews cliché— just like he eschews both the conscious rapper and gangster rapper labels. Instead of what you expect— instead of someone pulling out a gun— we discover that Staples is well versed in hand-to-hand combat and realism is traded for fantasy. Staples takes on three red-clad assailants with nothing but his bare hands while the second barber films the violence on his phone. When the scene of highly choreographed martial arts begins, so too does the second verse of “So What? (Episode 1)”. There are numerous blows to the face and bone-crunching sounds, but no blood. “Norf Norf” is playing on a screen in the barbershop. Staples does a ridiculous back flip and sends one of his enemies into the barbershop’s plate glass window, shattering the entire thing. The fight scene ends and the three bedraggled attackers watch, panting, as Staples walks out.
It’s weird, though. They appear to let him go when they are still capable of fighting. The way they watch Staples’ exit feels more like trained robots than humans and is amplified by the alien-sounding part of the song that I mentioned earlier. There’s something programmatic about the attack that feels eerie because, perhaps, it wasn’t driven by the gang antagonism that it appeared to be at first. The final ten seconds of “So What? (Episode 1)” remind me of the weirdest parts of Sorry to Bother You and I get the sense that The Vince Staples Show is only going to get more bizarre.
The video is sparking comparisons between Staples and Childish Gambino and you can see why. Both artists have a knack for creating music that touches on “issues” while skillfully avoiding the trap so many other issue-centric rappers fall prey to: being corny. They have both managed to carve out space in a difficult to find cross-section of entertaining and thoughtful. Sure, “So What? (Episode 1)” is about gangs and violence and Staples has made his positions on these things clear— but that’s not a new or compelling story. What Staples brings to the table is his singular point of view and the vision to manifest it. The Vince Staples Show promises to be enjoyable and thought-provoking.