At some point in the mid-2010s, discussion about the album as a cohesive statement took a turn toward fatalistic: the emergence of streaming services like Spotify, Pandora and YouTube forecasting a future of infinite playlists drawn from infinite sources. In some critical circles, the idea of a long player—a self-contained, beginning-to-end statement from an artist—seemed antiquated.
But last year, Long Beach rapper Vince Staples released Summertime '06, a double-album. Coupled with records like Kendrick Lamar's jazzy To Pimp a Butterfly, or more recent releases like Beyoncé's Lemonade, Kanye West's ever-morphing The Life of Pablo and Drake's Views, Summertime '06 made a bold case for the format. 20 songs long, the album contextualized a youth spent wrapped up in gang life, delivered in a way that rewarded straight-through listening.
Sure, you could pluck songs like "Norf Norf," "Loca" or "Lemme Know" for playlists, but the songs made the most sense sequenced with more concrete narratives like ""Ramona Park Legend Pt. 1 & 2" and "Summertime." "My teachers told me we was slaves," Staples intones on the latter. "My mama told me we was kings/I don't know who to listen to/I guess we somewhere in between."
"I just had the songs...there was nothing to it," Staples says. But dropping a double-album as your debut, even following well-received mixtapes like Shyne Coldchain Vol. 1 & 2 and the Hell Can Wait EP, is a bold act.
"Everything served a purpose because if it didn't, I wouldn't have recorded it," Staples says plainly.
That direct approach, coupled with the record's sound—heavy on vocal distortion, clattering beats and punchy bass—sets it apart from overstuffed double-LPs of the past. The music fits Staples' flow and impeccable lyrics, focused and often bleak. "In Black America, can you survive?" he asks on "C.N.B."
Staples doesn't offer answers, and he doesn't let anyone off the hook, either. Over a fuzzed-out bass line on "Lift Me Up," he calls out the white kids chanting after he drops the N-word at his shows. "Ho, this shit ain't Gryffindor," he chides (one of the funniest lines on the album).
Staples' strength lies in his ability to articulate the personal as political. Upon the album's release, Staples released a statement on Instagram discussing the album's title. "Summer of 2006, the beginning of the end of everything I thought I knew," Staples wrote, "Youth was stolen from my city that summer and I'm left alone to tell the story."
"Life is something that inspires me, just something you see and go through," Staples says. "Everything that you see in life has its effect in who you turn out to be."
The title may refernce a specific moment in his life, but he's not rooted solely in his past—it's simply one lens through which Staples projects his view.
"I don't necessarily think the album spoke on the past," Staples says. "It is reflective in a sense because everything is reflective."