A few years back, longtime EW contributor Mark Harris published Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood. It’s a fascinating, insightful tome that zeroes in on a handful of films — including the violently hedonistic Bonnie & Clyde and the unconventional sex comedy The Graduate — that not only helped reconfigure the way the film business operated but also spoke to a multitude of cultural shifts in America that would reverberate throughout all walks of life. Mostly, though, it’s a focused look at a great year in cinema history, a year that also saw the release of classics like In the Heat of the Night, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, Cool Hand Luke, The Dirty Dozen, and In Cold Blood.
Since then, there have been a handful of years that have delivered consistently incredible cinema across the board, sometimes by accident but often because of a convergence of talent, points of view, and resonance in the zeitgeist. There was 1975 (Jaws, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Three Days of the Condor, Dog Day Afternoon, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Nashville) and 1999 (Fight Club, Magnolia, The Matrix, Being John Malkovich, The Sixth Sense, Eyes Wide Shut, Office Space, South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut), and though we don’t have enough distance from it yet, it appears as though 2013 (Gravity, 12 Years a Slave, Frozen, The Wolf of Wall Street, Snowpiercer, About Time, Before Midnight, The World’s End, Her) will also stand in that category.
So far, 2015 is a pretty good year for movies, but it has been an all-time exceptional year for hip-hop albums. Seemingly every other week, a fresh masterpiece gets dropped in our laps, and it has been trying just to keep up with all the greatness that rappers have consistently delivered. What’s more, each one of them has been unique: Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, A$AP Rocky’s At.Long.Last.A$AP, Joey Bada$$’ B4.DA.$$, Ghostface Killah’s Sour Soul, Rae Sremmurd’s Sremmlife, Drake’s If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late, Big Sean’s Dark Sky Paradise, Action Bronson’s Mr. Wonderful, Earl Sweatshirt’s I Don’t Like Sh—I Don’t Go Outside, Young Thug’s Barter 6, and Wale’s The Album About Nothing each have a distinct sound and viewpoint.
The latest is Vince Staples’ Summertime ’06, a double album that arrives in stores today. The 21-year-old Staples spent the bulk of his teen years in gangs but managed to find a second life in music, which led to friendships with satellite Odd Future members Syd Tha Kid and Earl Sweatshirt. He made his mixtape debut at the end of 2011 and spent some time alongside members of the Top Dawg crew, but he really made his first significant impact last year with the release of the EP Hell Can Wait. It’s a desperate, claustrophobic collection that largely centers around his gang experiences, including the violent death of a friend. “65 Hunnid” is a great example of the spirit of the EP, as it is simultaneously anthemic and punishing.
Hell Can Wait is a phenomenal 24 minutes of music, but Summertime ’06 is a whole different beast. Over the course of two discs, Staples lays out his entire origin story, which centers around the summer he turned 13 and the beginning of his descent into a world of unpredictable violence from which he may never psychologically emerge. “Same song every day, listening to the words of a dead man destroyed by his own mind and body. Why? Because at the end of the day we’re all dead anyway,” Staples wrote on Instagram last month. “At least where I come from. Love tore us all apart. Love for self, love for separation, love for the little we all had, love for each other, where we came from. Jabari, Chris, Shard, Tom, Richy, Tyson, Tony, Shelly, Phil, Marcel, Brandon, Steve, Jaron, Tay. Too many to name, too much to forget. Some lost to prison, some lost to Forest Lawn, some turned snitch. Some still here but it will never be the same.” (Staples is so committed to the idea that “love will tear us apart” that the cover to Summertime ’06 is a play on Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures.)
Staples is an incredible storyteller, and he has an unbelievable knack for remarkably intricate details. Like A$AP Rocky’s At.Long.Last.A$AP, Summertime ’06 vacillates between steely resolve and borderline self-loathing, and the production — provided primarily by Kanye West associate No I.D .— keeps the whole scenario moody without being a drag. After some scene-setting ambience on “Ramona Park Legend, Pt. 1,” Summertime ’06 immediately establishes itself with “Lift Me Up,” a dark, brooding throb of a banger that rides on a guttural bass roll and Staples’ hard-hitting couplets. The chorus is both powerful and heartbreaking: “This weight is on my shoulders, pray Jehovah lift me up/ And my pain is never over, pills and potions fix me up/ I just want to live it up, can a motherf—er breathe?/ Life ain’t always what it seems, so please lift me up.” Still, he manages to find a light side. “Uber driver in the cockpit/ Look like Jeffrey Dahmer/ But he lookin’ at me crazy when we pull up to the projects,” he cheekily rhymes on that same track. Staples sells is out with his shape-shifting, hypnotic flow, which rides tracks smoothly without sacrificing its youthful intensity.
The remainder of Summertime ’06 is just as compelling: the minimalist two-step “Norf Norf,” the jittery “Dopeman,” the operatic “Jump Off the Roof,” the sweetly soulful “Might Be Wrong,” the haunting “Street Punks.” By the time closing track “’06” suddenly breaks for eerie static, Staples has presented himself as thoroughly and completely as any rapper on his debut. There are only a handful of first albums that so clearly establish a worldview, and Staples’ Summertime ’06 sits alongside classics like Biggie’s Ready to Die, Eminem’s The Slim Shady LP, and Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, m.a.a.d. city as one of the most fully-formed debuts in hip-hop history. Vince Staples has arrived, and he is a force to be reckoned with in the rap world. As Biggie said, “If you don’t know, now you know.”