When it comes to lyrics and art, Vince Staples is in control.
Monday night at the Ogden Theatre, he guided the crowd from one end of the emotional spectrum to another, with his high-energy set culminating in a tribute to Mac Miller. The show wrapped with a black-and-white film of the late rapper's NPR Tiny Desk Concert that left the exhausted crowd in a state of nostalgia and grief.
A little over a month into his Smile, You're On Camera tour, Staples delivered a ripping performance, more the stuff of a seasoned rock star than a 25-year-old artist. Still, between hard-spit raps, he'd pull out his inhaler to stave off altitude woes. Who could blame him? He was pouring his entire body and soul into words that erupted out of his lungs.
Elbows flew, fans danced and moshed, and the pit never stopped moving. The crowd might as well have been at a hardcore show. The chaos was magnified by a big screen on stage flashing old TVs that included images of the crowd. Staples took the phrase "Smile, You're on Camera" seriously, and so did the crowd, as people pushed to the front to see their smiling faces on the big screen.
Vintage movies playing on the TVs behind Staples were distracting – old pornography films were shown, footage flickered between chickens and owls, robberies and baptism. I kept trying to figure out what it all meant – if anything, especially when the crowd's faces joined into the mix; I never really did.
Staples would likely laugh at some reporter trying to decipher his art. He mocks journalists, sometimes tweeting insults mid-interview. He wants to be the only one who can speak about his work, and for good reason. He doesn't want to get put into a box just because he is a rapper, telling the New York Times in an interview that "it’s demeaning to where I come from, my people, my community."
While his music is largely written for and about the black community, he's keenly aware that his white fans forge what they see as an intimate relationship with his lyrics. In the song "Lift Me Up," he rapped, "Feel despairs cause most my homies never finna get this chance / All these white folks chanting when I asked 'em where my ****** at? / Goin' crazy, got me goin' crazy, I can't get wit' that."
White audience members should have taken the hint and simmered down, but even so, the rapper seemed to enjoy having the entire crowd call back on songs like "War Ready" and "FUN!"
He concluded his set with "Norf Norf," a song about growing up in Long Beach among gangs, and then "Yeah Right," a look at the perils of success and fame. He did this all with a smile and mic in hand to levy the weight of his words. He walked quickly away from the stage, leaving the tired and thirsty crowd expecting an encore.
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That's when Mac Miller took over on the screens. Staples was one of the artists to play at Miller's memorial concert following his death. Turning the stage over to Miller took courage and love. The shift from Staples' high-intensity, quick-paced set to something quieter was grounding.
As some fans departed while Miller performed on the screen, they received the stink eye from fellow audience members. The crowd responded with yells and claps when each Miller song ended, as if he was really right there on stage with us.
Staples never came back out, and it reminded me of when he tweeted, "There is no Vince Staples without Mac Miller. with that being said we about to smash on the gas."
The gas has been smashed, and Staples's career is zipping ahead.