Hell Can Wait
by Chad Jewett
A truly great EP leaves you pining for real iterations of the full-length versions that play in your head. Best-case-scenario, EPs make the most of their truncated running times with infectious economy, paradoxically making you want more by showing you just how much can be done with less. Hell Can Wait, the Def Jam-released major-label debut from Long Beach California rapper Vince Staples, is one of those EPs. Its twenty-four minutes are divided amongst seven songs, so that even within the confines of a short-playing record we get multiple glimpses at the different sorts of themes, soundscapes, and structures in which Staples can excel, ranging from mood-heavy synth-driven expressionism to steely political resistance to avant-garde sonic playfulness (check the arcade-game symphony that bleeps-and-bloops throughout “Feelin’ The Love”, courtesy of producer Hagler). Turns out, the twenty-one year old emcee might just be one of the most aesthetically flexible and conceptually adventurous rappers in mainstream hip-hop, and manages to stake that claim in record time.
The EP begins with its best song, the brief but riveting “Fire.” Made up of the same kind of rounded, icy synth jabs and blitzing post-punk drums that made Kanye West’s “New Slaves” feel like some sort of hip-hop new world order in 2013, the song is a thrillingly heavy two minutes, one in which Staples threads his excellent ear for the pocket (check the way certain staccato lines are utterly glued to that sizzling hi-hat) and a flexibility that can stretch bars one second and tie multi-syllable lines together the next. The song’s boom-bap floor is cavernous – one of the finest productions of the year – and the fact that “Fire” is over in just over 120 seconds when it could easily have lasted three times that length is a good synecdoche for the EP as a whole. Unlike so many major-label rap debuts, Staples’ EP excels in the art of leaving us wanting more.
Much of the rest of the record further plumbs the depths just hinted at in Vince Staples’ star making turn on “Hive”, the stand-out single from Earl Sweatshirt’s underrated 2013 LP, Doris. As with that verse, the best moments of Hell Can Wait (and there are plenty) are intersections of political critique, West Coast classicism, left-field lyrical auteur ism and stylized paranoia. “Screen Door” elaborates the bad-dream logic of “Hive” over a clattering, abstract soundscape that lands like what Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan would come up with if charged with crafting a beat for A$AP Ferg (which, now that I think of it, would be incredible). “Blue Suede” is similarly thrilling in its combination of queasy atmosphere – typified by a woozy synth straight out of Liquid Swords eventually matched by an absolute leviathan of a bassline – and Staples gift for hooks, both in dense verses and infectious choruses.
There is further brilliance in “Hands Up”, wherein Staples makes a double entendre out of the phrase “Put your hands in the air” to describe a systemic plague of police violence in greater Los Angeles, breaking from the apparent nihilism of the Odd Future crew with which Vince Staples is somewhat associated to construct a compelling critique of abused power. Surrounded by atonal bass, eerie keyboard dots and swirling klaxons (No I.D. handles production here), Staples name-checks Black Panthers Bobby Seale and Huey P. Newtown and details all the ways in which those long subject to police abuse are being denied citizenship, ultimately summarizing the situation: “Raiding homes without a warrant, shooting first without a warning / And they expect respect and non-violence / I refused the right to be silent.” The entire song (and EP for that matter) is defined by that conceptual and lyrical dexterity (take for instance the “refusal to remain silent”, placing double meaning on the language of Miranda warning), by that sense of righteous resistance and political incisiveness. It’s a remarkable moment on a short album full of them, and an example of the sheer talent and captivating potential of Vince Staples.