This image is from the official website of Vince Staples.

Vince Staples has been a distinctive voice in West Coast hip-hop for almost seven years. In a literal sense, the rapper’s deadpan tenor delivery and knack for dry humor have come to be a key part of his charm. Thematically, Staples’s tales of a tumultuous upbringing in the Long Beach, Calif., neighborhood of Ramona Park have become equally synonymous with his music. On his fifth studio album, RAMONA PARK BROKE MY HEART, Staples dives headfirst into this familiar topic, not so much writing a love letter to the place as he is reflecting on the scars it’s left him with. 

On opener “THE BEACH,” we’re ushered into the California sun with the gentle lull of ocean waves. Over light keys and guitar, Staples raps about those he’s left behind in his rise to fame, musing, “We can’t take everybody with us / We can’t get everybody rich.” In place of a beat drop, Staples’s final verse is punctuated by a rapid spray of gunshots. The moment poetically captures the dark realities of life in Ramona Park, casting away any previous conceptions of a sandy utopia we may have concocted in the song’s first few seconds. 

“BANG THAT,” an 808s-ladden track with production from the prolific Mustard, plays with similar imagery. Staples sings, “Momma had me where it never rain at (We in the hood) / Playin’ with them weapons, where the waves crash.” Despite his proximity to the romanticized shorelines of the Pacific, pervasive violence has characterized much of Staples’s Californian experience. The song’s structure veers closer to a palatable rap hit you might hear on the radio, interlacing the sobering contents of its lyrics with a club-banger beat. 

Staples’s sonic trajectory over the years has been chameleon-like to say the least. From the gritty 2015 album Summertime ‘06 to the club-infused 2017 project Big Fish Theory, the rapper has proved himself as a savant of many different sounds. Yet, Staples’s embrace of the aforementioned palatable radio rap on songs like “LEMONADE” and “MAGIC” leave something to be desired. Beneath their auto-tuned choruses and conventional beats, the tracks feel unadventurous given Staples’s stacked catalog of dynamic instrumentation. Perhaps this is what makes pockets of RAMONA PARK feel forgettable at times. Luckily, there are still moments when Staples seems to be flexing his old creative prowess. 

“DJ QUIK” pulls from Staples’s West Coast rap lineage, sampling the 1995 DJ Quik track “Dollaz + Sense” with collage-like intricacy. Its chopped-up drums, pittering cowbell and velvety bass are a solid re-imaging of the iconic diss track, where a matter-of-fact Staples reiterates, “If it don’t make dollars, then it don’t make sense.” 

Lyrically, “WHEN SPARKS FLY” proves to be the album’s most inventive narrative, personifying the relationship between Staples and his gun with the same tone one might use to describe a passionate love affair in a ’90s R&B song. Tucked beneath a silky sample of Lyves’s “No Love,” Staples unearths some of his characteristically subtle humor with lines like, “I don’t wanna use protection with you / But the glove’ll keep you safe if you ever get loose.” Even with this wry wordplay, the track still feels weighty. Staples toys with the complicated relationship between himself and his firearm, one in which the weapon is both a perpetrator of the violence plaguing his community and simultaneously a necessary means of protection. Elsewhere on the project, Staples takes on a pessimistic view of romantic relationships, stating on the track “ROSE STREET” that he’s, “Married to the money, don’t be playing games / Only bringing flowers to the homie’s grave.” 

On closing track, “THE BLUES,” these destructive contradictions of life have made Staples audibly weary. His voice is subdued, missing the buoyant intensity of his younger, more rambunctious self. He laments, “I keep gettin’ smaller houses but I won’t find peace ’til the Lord allows it,” speaking to a kind of emptiness that can’t be filled with wealth and newfound fame. Despite Staples’s physical separation from this painful adolescence in Ramona Park, a change in circumstance has not been enough to patch up the wounds of his past. 

As the track’s melancholic guitar melts into the soft rhythm of ocean waves, RAMONA PARK has come full circle. Staples doesn’t provide an uplifting final message or clear sigh of relief for the listener, but the water’s soft rhythm stands as a reminder that these cycles of devastation and triumphant survival are as constant as the tides.   

Daily Arts Writer Nora Lewis can be reached at