Adam Theisen: Vince Staples, Kacey Musgraves and the art of storytelling
Two of the best albums of 2015 so far have come out in the past few weeks, and I’m probably one of the few people who loved both of them.
This has been a fantastic month for music of all genres. Besides Miguel’s ground-breaking Wildheart, we’ve heard fantastic new releases from Kacey Musgraves and Vince Staples, two fast-rising stars in country and hip hop, respectively.
It might seem odd to see Musgraves and Staples in the same sentence, because their music doesn’t even seem to inhabit the same world. But I wanted to write about them both in the same column today because, even though their genres and aesthetics are wildly different, as I’ve been listening to their albums, I’m finding that I like each one for strangely similar reasons. Both of these records are great because their artists use songwriting as a way to represent their cultures and bring you into their worlds.
For me, Vince Staples’s Summertime ’06 was a hotly anticipated release. The 21-year-old has come up on a wave of hype after associations with Mac Miller and Odd Future, with Summertime marking his official debut release. Clams Casino and the now-legendary No I.D. do their part on production by throwing swirling dark clouds over every track, but Staples owns this record alone with his words and voice. Much like Kendrick Lamar on good kid, m.A.A.d city, Staples takes his introduction to a mass audience as an opportunity to recreate the streets from which he came. But while Lamar colored the bleak violence of Compton with huge, radio-ready choruses and songs that were legitimately fun to listen to, Staples sounds like he’s rapping in an isolated post-apocalyptic wasteland. These aren’t party anthems; they’re sober reflections and un-sugarcoated truths.
Staples creates the scenes of his youth with an astoundingly mature touch. As Shayan Shafii wrote last week, Staples takes a page from guys like 2Pac and Kendrick by playing the survivor role and telling the stories of his friends who didn’t make it out. Staples details almost all of the struggles that face Black men growing up in the ’hood — police, racism, poverty, violence and drug addiction. He grapples with his newfound status, with being the rich outsider in his neighborhood and playing shows to white crowds while knowing how little has changed where he’s from. This record is not an enjoyable, breezy listen, but it contains valuable insights about American life that everyone should hear.
On the other hand, while I was ready to hear Summertime ’06 the day it came out, I count myself as a member of the notorious “anything but country” music fan clique. So I’ll admit that Kacey Musgraves was nowhere near my radar until soon after her sophomore major-label release, Pageant Material, came out a few weeks ago. And the easy explanation for why she seemed to very suddenly reach my ears is because Musgraves doesn’t sound like modern country music. She’s found acceptance in indie-rock and hipster circles because her acoustic arrangements and quieter reflections are a far cry from the booze-and-chicks anthems of guys like Jason Aldean and Luke Bryan.
Any record with small acoustic arrangements and vocal-heavy songs is going to be judged primarily on its lyrics, and Musgraves has plenty of great ones. Her songs range from down-home perkiness (“Cup of Tea”) to quietly, lovingly reflective (“Late to the Party”), but they all undeniably have Musgraves’ personal stamp of self-deprecation and trail blazer mentality. There’s an obvious twang in practically every note, but fans of indie singer-songwriters (or any genre) should never be too uncomfortable. Musgraves’ warmth and wit should affect you even if you’re strictly a hardcore hip-hop head.
It’s been weird for me, alternating between the two of these albums since I discovered them, because it’s hard to imagine two works of art more culturally or sonically divergent. Though commercial country music does owe a certain debt to hip-hop, Musgraves and Staples are both operating outside their genres’ modern radio sounds. Musgraves is acoustic, traditional and timeless, with her work serving as a callback to fierce iconoclastic country personalities of old while also creating a new, relevant one for today’s world. Staples, meanwhile, has made an album almost completely bereft of the glamour, opulence and escapism that a lot of radio hip hop plays up. This is the last album you would ever expect to be called Summertime — Future’s hook on “Señorita” is the brightest things ever get, and even that sounds like a ghostly approximation of Future’s typical all-out energy. But even though they both stay away from certain genre clichés, Musgraves and Staples songs are fiercely proud to represent The South and South Central LA, respectively, and I can’t imagine two more different places in America for an artist to come from.
Occasionally, though, Musgraves and Staples fall into the worst traps of their styles of music. A couple of the obvious singles on Musgraves album (“Biscuits” and “Family Is Family”) are wall-to-wall filled with the most clichéd down-home sayings you can imagine (like “I burned my own damn finger poking someone else’s fire”). The lines are cute and old-school on their own, like something your grandma might say, but all together they can come off as pandering and incongruous with the rest of Pageant Material. Staples, for his part, can’t quite acquit himself of mainstream hip-hop misogyny by including women in his narrative only as nameless “bitches” and “hoes.” Staples probably deserves a pass here because he’s expertly recreating a world he inhabited when he was only an immature 12 years old, but in general, I’ve been wishing since To Pimp a Butterfly for a major hip hop record to tell stories of “life in the ’hood” from a woman’s perspective. However, the onus shouldn’t be on Staples to deliver that — and I’m glad it’s not, because Staples really isn’t good at telling women’s stories (see the at-least-eyebrow-raising second verse of “Surf”, in which he seems to be guilt-tripping a young girl choosing to have an abortion).
But obviously, none of these flaws come anywhere near sinking their respective records. I love both of them, even if they sound weird back to back. Musgraves has gone back to the past to create a new model for a 21st century country music star with her reflective, independent and feminist melodies, while Staples has confidently embraced his role as fearless social critic, philosopher and torch-bearer in a chaotic and uncertain world — both incredible feats for artists still in the early stages of their careers. But both of these records are especially great, regardless of genre or where they come from, because of the bare humanity laid out in each of them. Neither Musgraves nor Staples is perfect — and, well, you’re delusional if you expect them to be — but they’re both sharing their personal stories. If an artist simply has the courage to invite you into his or her world, that deserves respect; but if he or she does it with as much intelligence and skill as Musgraves and Staples, it demands attention. Even if you normally never listen to their style of music, give Musgraves and Staples a shot and step into their worlds.