Vince Staples Tells a Sobering Street Story on ‘Ramona Park Broke My Heart’

Rapper Vince Staples concluded the self-titled album that he released less than a year ago with a retrospective glance. The final track, “Mhm,” found him recalling, “‘Fore Corona, I was at Ramona with a mask.” It’s easy to imagine why a mask might have been used in the hood long before the pandemic, namely in Staples’ Long Beach, CA hometown neighborhood of Ramona Park. Until now, Staples’ accounts of the life he lived before he rose to fame amounted to fleeting references, but Staples’ fifth album, “Ramona Park Broke My Heart” focuses exclusively on that life. Ever since 2017’s groundbreaking “Big Fish Theory,” Staples has moderated his artistic impulses, moving toward a more classic sound. This latest release continues that trend, to an end that can feel relatively tepid alongside Staples’ previous work, especially since the increasing conformity comes with an alacritous lapsing into clichés that considerably compromises the content. Nevertheless, the album tells a story worth telling, picking up just where Staples left off, and constituting his most personal work-to-date.   

Staples’ first step on the album is to represent Long Beach sonically. An introductory track titled “The Beach” opens with the serene sound of waves. Next up, clean guitars and funky synths emerge, a specifically West Coast hip-hop sound. Staples takes the mic and raps without any drums, introducing us to the world of Ramona Park. The scene he portrays is a cutthroat environment where survival of the fittest is the modus operandi. He ends with a direct threat – “Please, don’t try to get involved ‘less you wanna prove it,” before gunshots cue the first full song, “Aye (Free the Homies.)” A minimal beat takes form from fingersnap-snares and jazzy R&B guitars. Staples begins promising to “shoot a momma if she out while we slide.” If it can seem a bit much, he at least offers some predictable context, painting himself as a hardened criminal made callous by a life full of loss. A plea of “Bring my homies back,” haphazardly thrown into a line is enough to elicit empathy. The chorus finds a whole crew of voices joining Staples, and culminates, “If I had one wish, I’d free the homies.”

“DJ Quik” is a tribute to the eponymous G-Funk pioneer that samples his definitive 2002 single “Dollaz + Sense.” For decades, the forgotten hip-hop element of DJ scratching has rarely made its way into rap songs outside a narrow retro-obsessed B-boy niche, and the scratching that abounds on Staples’ track is a refreshing novelty. However, it’s on lead single, “Magic,” that the g-funk really comes out, courtesy of DJ Mustard. Over a bright, breezy California cut, full of wah-wah synth bass and raked handclaps, Staples marvels at the magic of his making it out of Ramona Park. 

“When Sparks Fly” follows a stark boom-bap beat with an insistent, reverberating snare, and draws its chorus from a sampled segment of Lyves’ “No Love.” Staples recalls, “She said, “Baby, keep me closely,” and starts to describe a relationship that reveals itself to be increasingly strained as he goes on. Like much of the content on the album, it’s rather generic fare – or so it seems until we learn the identity of whom he has been addressing all along, and lines like “Everywhere you go, we together, inseparable” suddenly ring less saccharine. The track is a sure standout, simply because Staples has been rapping all along about his gun. “East Point Prayer,” on the other hand, stands out from a sonic perspective. An organ-drenched beat locks into a tight groove with a reckless scattering of trap hi hats and an infectious Auto-tune vocal loop. Lil Baby joins Staples on the track, and packs plenty of personality into his verses with his slick way of rapping just behind the beat, and veering off into spontaneous melodic cascades. “Papercuts,” referring to the markings that come with the paper chase, is another of the catchier tracks, with a single sampled line of laidback singing working magic, and Staples stunning without doing anything particularly profound, as he’s simply so in his element that the entire display is infectious. 

Sometimes Staples reaches and misses with his wordplay, as on “Lemonade,” which features a refrain of “Feelin’ like ice cold lemonade.” As Staples has established from the onset that he has the callous comportment of a hardened criminal, his “ice cold” bit works well enough. Come the climactic line, “Sometimes life tastes bittersweet,” however, he confuses his bitter and sour taste buds, and all for a metaphor that hardly seems worth it. On the other hand, there are instances when Staples makes a track with just his meter and momentum, as in sequences on “Player Ways” like “I don’t know that girl and if I do, it’s not like that / And if I did, it was a while ago, before you took me back.” Sure, you might have to hear it for yourself, but his flow is on point. 

Staples nods to his mother on “Mama’s Boy,” crediting her work ethic for his own over an ergonomic, clicking drum loop that effectively captures the feel of staying on the grind. In a flash, he moves from paying respect to demanding it with gangster posturing on “Bang That.” He pieces together a call and response with a litany of expected priorities – money, posse, guns – checking off each item with a call of “Bang that.” Single “Rose Street,” essentially a “bros over hoes” manifesto, builds on this further, with a refrain that finds Staples insisting, “I don’t sing no love songs.” One could call him out for “When Sparks Fly,” as a love song about a firearm is a love song nonetheless, as is one about one’s homies. Then again, Staples doesn’t exactly sing them. Making “Rose Street” particularly resonant is the happenstance that its instrumental loop bears a striking resemblance to Outkast’s “Ms. Jackson.” Finally, “The Blues” brings the album to a sobering finale. The guitar and bass interplay, at the jazzier end of “the blues,” again recalls Outkast, particularly their “Southernplayalisticadillacmuzic” debut, although there is something particularly tortured to the tremulous wah wah tones here. Staples winds the album down as he began it, rapping without percussion, revealing a mindset that is regretful, paranoid, and perpetually on edge, concluding, “If I don’t come home tonight / Just pray for me.”

There’s no doubt that Staples’ life at Ramona Park was full of thrills and tragedy, forming an ultimately inspiring rags-to-riches story. Yet, all of this is beyond hackneyed subject matter in the world of hip-hop. To craft a compelling album out of such source material, at this point, requires a bit more than mere recollection. “Ramona Park Broke My Heart” has its creative moments, such as the twist at the end of “When Sparks Fly.” Overall, however, the content here is generic, and Staples’ presentation is frustratingly less creative than what he has proven capable of in the past. Staples has clearly made a conscious effort to steer away from the hyperactive experimentation that characterized “Big Fish Theory,” toward a more cohesive, disciplined aesthetic, with every successive album being less flashy and more rooted in classic hip-hop stylings than its predecessor. Unfortunately, he doesn’t appear to have rechanneled his energy into any comparably satisfying ends. His “maturation” doesn’t bear any major discernible increase in lyrical profundity or wit, and his vocal stylings haven’t exactly been so much refined as merely moderated. Perhaps he felt that the gravity of his story mandated something of a no-frills approach. At any rate, he’s a skilled rapper with an undisputed authenticity about him, which accounts for enough merit in its own right, and there are moments on “Ramona Park Broke My Heart” where he simply raps and shines. 

Ramona Park Broke My Heart” releases April 8 on Apple Music.