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In Celebration of Black Music Month: Black Nihilism and Vince Staples’s Hell Can Wait

In 2015, Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly took the world by storm. The break out song from the album, “Alright”, was ubiquitous. It became the song of the summer. Yet, it was an EP released by a different California artist that captured my attention. The little known 2014 release enthralled me with its sonic cohesion and what Cornel West in Race Matters calls ‘black nihilism.’ The album was Hell Can Wait, and the artist is Vince Staples.

Hailing from Long Beach, the home of Snoop, Staples wasn’t feeling the cheerful, club banger turn in hip-hop prior to 2014. “If you listen to shit about niggas being in a position where they have no hope, there should be nothing at peace about that,” he said in an interview with Pitchfork. “There’s a way to do it where it’s listenable and likable, but it shouldn’t just be some happy stuff.” Cornel West, building upon the existential notion of nihilism, proposes the notion of black nihilism—that is, the sense of worthlessness many Black folks experience living under the weight of white supremacy. Hell Can Wait (HCW) is the perfect aesthetic expression of that sentiment. The sometimes-soulful production is laced with lyrics that cut to the bone.

Unlike Lamar, Staples is not a dense lyricist in the tradition of Nas or Biggie. His stripped down style has a decidedly West Coast feel that owes more to Ice Cube and Tupac Shakur. He does not make you wonder about the subject matter of the album. In the chorus of “Fire”, the first song on the EP, he whispers over the chorus: “I’m probably finna go to hell anyway.” This conceptual lens colors all that comes thereafter.

HCW wrestles with the difficult moral choices people trapped in urban decay are forced to make. He does not comment on what gives rise to this decline; instead, he focuses upon hellcanwaitwhat is experienced by those forced to live under the weight of institutional racism and economic inequality. This is a sonic tour through a museum of black misery. He investigates the psychology of men and women who have accepted their reality as inescapable and are fully invested in the underground economy the streets offer.

“65 Hunnid” discusses the loneliness inherent in a life on the streets. On the track, he says, “Car full of niggas, but you’re alone” yet, paradoxically, he says, “time to show how much you love your homies …” The need for acceptance coupled with the distance necessitated by life on the streets cultivates a sensation of paranoia.

“Screen Door” uses the hook from Goodie Mob’s “Cell Therapy “as the skeleton upon which to flesh out the ramifications of a childhood filled with infrequent visits from drug addicts seeking the respite from reality his father offers.

Next is “Hands Up”, a song that examines the difficult relationship people living in an area full of crime share with those who are sworn to serve and protect them. The contemptuous relationship described in “Hands Up” makes us sympathetic to his plight; yet that sympathy is complicated by the threat Staples poses to his community since, as we discover in “Blue Suede”, he is a member of the Long Beach Crips.

Yes, Staples is in an impossible economic situation—the land of “babies having babies;” therefore, the choices he makes are never easy ones.  Sure, a college education would have been preferable, but given his immediate need, he turned to crime—a life lived in powder blue Air Jordan 3s, attire that reflects his loyalty to the gang.

The penultimate song on the EP would be blatantly misogynistic if Staples were a less insightful rapper. He begins by discussing the sexual escapades of black men who clearly view women as merely an object of sexual gratification; however, he ends the song by considering the view of love and sex from the perspective of women who are reared in an inner city milieu. The possibility of intimacy for black men and women are endangered by the institutional forces weighing down on them. One must be careful and protect their hearts, because if you “fall in love, you’re lost.”

The album ends with a summarization of all that came before. His nihilism is put on full display through spare lyrics and dizzying flow. This was an EP that, for many, put Vince Staples on the map. His follow-up, 2015’s Summertime ’06, is brilliant, but a bit verbose. Hell Can Wait is a tour de force. An album that is as much sociology and philosophy as it is art.

It’s almost as if Richard Wright stepped into the booth to lay down bars.

In Native Son, Wright writes: “Goddammit, look! We live here and they live there. We black and they white. They got things and we ain’t. They do things and we can’t. It’s just like living in jail.” Vince Staples reminds us that the inner city still imprisons many. We should never forget that for some living in those conditions the day-to-day lived experience is one of anxiety and moral ambiguity. Some are so burdened by life that the choices they make are colored by the feeling that they “prolly finna go to hell anyway.”

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Lawrence Ware is a professor of philosophy and diversity coordinator for Oklahoma State University’s Ethics Center. He can be reached at:  Law.writes@gmail.com.

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