Vince Staples has seen it all. His father was a crack dealer who left him. Vince spent his youth on the streets of Long Beach, California as a gang member. And eventually, the man skyrocketed into the world of high art as a critically acclaimed young rapper. But the most poignant track on his marvelous debut album—Summertime ’06 (2015)—is about a devastating breakup. It’s about feeling a trident yanking in and out of your heart a trillion times and somehow finding a way to stay alive. “Summertime” is one of the most beautiful and poetic songs I’ve ever heard.
The song begins with a tone-setting beat by Clams Casino. Vince opens with the line “This could be forever baby.” He repeats it several times—rapping with the tone of a man speaking hopelessly to a ghost, a man who is slowly giving up on life. He continues, “Do you like the sunshine? Do you like the snow? Do you want to talk about it—or be alone? I think that you should know that this could be forever, baby.” The lyrics paint a visceral image of a summertime relationship. Vince imagines it as one that spans forever, one that dabbles in the sunshine of the summers and the snow of the winters. And yet, he knows that is a lost cause. She’s gone. And then comes verse 1.
Open up your eyes and tell me what you’re thinking.Verse 1
Open up your mind, and tell me what you’re seeing inside of me.
Why we fussing, fucking up this evening?
I probably couldn’t fix it if I knew the reason.
Upon the sea, where I see you falling in the deep end.
Is it love? I would really love to know the meaning.
What’s the grudge that you’re holding? Hold my hand.
Let me take you to the land where the ocean and the sands are meeting.
Look at the sun—all we need to see to know our freedom.
Open up your heart.
If we don’t love then we fall apart.
Verse 1 welcomes you into Vince’s brain, where he relives the relationship. He delivers vignettes: little moments from the relationship. Heartbroken, he speaks of wanting to take her to the beach (perhaps thinking of the sea as a metaphor for the infinite nature of the relationship he seeks). This is followed by the second chorus, where Vince delivers two challenging lines. The first one comes off as a sexual remark: “I’ve never seen you wetter, baby—than when the tears fall, soaking up your sweater, baby.” But with the next line, we realize that it is a heartfelt comment. The second one is even more memorable: “They never taught me how to be a man, only how to be a shooter.” This speaks volumes on both personal and societal levels.
This could be forever, baby.Chorus 2
I’ve never seen you wetter, baby—
Than when the tears fall, soaking up your sweater, baby.
I didn’t mean harm, don’t make me regret it, baby.
Cause if I never knew you, I could never do this to you.
Hope you understand:
They never taught me how to be a man, only how to be a shooter.
I only need the time to prove it.
As if the first verse wasn’t special enough, Mr. Staples wraps up the narrative with verse 2—a sprawling look into the brilliant rapper’s sharp young mind. It’s one of the best verses I’ve ever heard, with personal, emotional, historical, and social layers of commentary—all while keeping a laser-sharp focus on his shattered heart. The verse ends with a hyper-vulnerable scene: “Pick up the phone. Don’t leave me alone in this cruel, cruel world.” But rather than ending the song there, Vince allows Clams Casino to throw in a neat outro. The outro, which feels perfect in its placement, allows you to process the immaculate lyrics and let them just sink in.
My teachers told me we was slaves.Verse 2
My mama told me we was kings.
I don’t know who to listen to.
I guess we’re somewhere in between.
My feelings tell me love is real.
But feelings are known to get you killed.
I feel as if I’m misconstrued.
I spend my moments missing you.
I’m searching for atonement,
Do I blame my darker tone?
I know some things are better left unsaid and people left alone.
Pick up the phone.
Don’t leave me alone in this cruel, cruel world.
Perhaps you have felt the way Vince feels. I know I have. And in a time when I needed it, I couldn’t stop returning to this masterpiece. “Summertime” debunks everything the world says about rap. It isn’t fast. It isn’t gratifying. It isn’t artificial music made for parties. No, no, no. It is a deeply moving work of fine art. And like the album in which it was released, this work of a then-teenage man (who spent time in jail, was kicked out of school, and was a member of a gang) encapsulates all that is great about humanity. “Summertime” is devastating—but it’s ultimately clear that Vince has regathered himself. Reborn, the man is pouring himself into his art—and he is an inspiration to countless people of all types.