A sold out all-ages crowd, originally destined for Powerstation, squished sweatily and excitably into The Studio, percolating in anticipation of Vince Staples taking the stage. Touring on the back of last year’s Big Fish Theory, Staples was preceded by his reputation for rapidly changing styles and incisive lyrics.
Big Fish Theory was noted for the influence of EDM and house music, and for cutting lyrics examining fame and fortune underpinning big commercial beats and hooks. The atmosphere as Staples took the stage was very much like a rave, all throbbing bass, jumping bodies, sweat and fingers in the air. He performed outlined alone by a large screen glowing soft orange, coming out the gate with energy and skill. The beats were thumping, the hooks catchy, Staples’ flow on point, the crowd were absolutely loving it. People jumped and chanted and waved their hands.
As the hits like Big Fish and Yeah, Right scrolled past, though, I felt more and more unmoved. Something was missing here, for me. It was intimacy. That may seem a strange thing to lack in a crowd that presses you from all sides, but there it was. This gig was feeling like a rave in the best and worst ways. Yes there was the hype and the dancing and the adrenaline. But there was also a strange feeling of distance between the artist and the audience.
The crowd had gathered to hear these songs, the artist had come to play them, but it didn’t quite feel like the two were on the same page. Part of it may have been the very scant crowd interaction by Staples, who mostly just got on with moving from song to song. What crowd work there was was rather token, calls for hands in the air and countdowns to bass drops.
Another layer of disconnect was that the stage show’s party-hard format didn’t play to the most compelling strengths of Staples’ music. He can write a killer hook, yes, but the real deadliness is in the verses, where glamour and hype is subverted and questioned by lyrics far darker and more personal.
Take a song like Party People, with its fluffy hook “Party people, I like to see you dance,” but lines from the first verse like “Please don’t look me in my face / everybody might see my pain / Off the rail, might off myself / Bored with life as I board this plane.” The genius is in the contrast. The seriousness of the verses lend the get up and jump chorus a bleak irony. Same with Big Fish, same with a lot of Staple’s back catalogue. There wasn’t much sense of irony in the live setting though, and it made the songs seem robbed of their depth.
Part of the responsibility must lie on Staples, who made no real effort to drive home the meaning or emotions behind his songs. You have to wonder, though, how receptive last night’s crowd would have been to an overdose of realness.
There was certainly no note of irony in the air as the crowd of predominantly white, dancing Aucklanders sang along to closer Norf Norf: “I ain’t ever ran from nothin but the police / From the city where the skinny carry strong heat / Norfside, Long Beach, Norfside, Long Beach.” A crowd further from Northside, Long Beach would be difficult to imagine.
It’s entirely possible that Staples himself felt that gulf between the content and the audience, though. This is the man, after all, who on a previous album wrote: “All these white folks chanting when I ask them ‘Where my n*****s at?’ / … / Wonder if they know I know they won’t go where we kick it at?” He certainly didn’t stick around to bask in the applause, ending the show with a brief muttered thank you and disappearing abruptly off stage. The less than warm goodbye wasn’t all in our heads; this morning on Twitter he’s been fending off criticism and making snarky comments about white boys singing the N-word (fair enough on that point, too).
You could certainly sympathise with Staples if he feels that art he makes to say something real has been turned into a facade for people of more privileged backgrounds to dance and posture to. Nevertheless, if that’s how Staples feels, he needn’t participate in his own cheapening. Music can be and is often used to bridge social divides and bring people closer to common understanding and compassion. Failing that, it can be used to confront and provoke.
But last night Vince Staples didn’t seem keen for much besides showing up, partying and leaving, so he can hardly blame his audience for the same.
Click on any image to view a small gallery of photos provided by the promoter (photographer Shahlin Graves):