"L.A., y'all having a good time tonight?" Vince Staples asked, and it wasn't clear what answer he was searching for.
The 23-year-old rapper from Long Beach had come to the Fonda Theatre on Tuesday night for the first of two concerts to finish a lengthy North American tour. In a way, the run of shows represents a victory lap — one final celebration of his acclaimed recent work before he moves on to a new studio album expected later this year.
But Staples doesn't really do victory.
On his impressive, unflinching 2015 debut, "Summertime '06," he presents a bleak portrait of his hometown in the grip of gang violence and police brutality; even his songs about sex — like "Lemme Know," with its image of a broken condom — sound drained of joy, as though Staples recognizes that experience as just another transaction likely to go wrong.
And success hardly brightened his worldview. On last year's "Prima Donna" EP he brags about being paid $80,000 for playing a single gig — then tells us he "put it away for a rainy day / You never know when you gon' catch a case."
That gritty realism isn’t unique to Staples of course. But the thoroughness of his vision is: In his music he never offers the promise of escape, as Snoop Dogg does, or of transcendence, as
Speaking this month to NPR, Staples said he didn't create his breakout song "Norf Norf" — about a neighborhood where "folks need Porsches, hos need abortions" — to "make people happy." In his reckoning, the tune functions the way a murder scene or a rape scene functions in a film; it's meant to display "an element of trauma."
So were we having a good time Tuesday night? The idea seemed perverse (which didn't stop hundreds of party people from pumping their fists to "Norf Norf").
Instead, Staples' hour-long show felt like an invitation to step into his troubled mind. Dressed in a dark hoodie, he performed by himself in front of three large video screens flashing scenes of police action in "Hands Up" and bursting lava in "Fire," in which he predicts he's going to hell; other songs were accompanied by pictures of skulls and sea life in murky water.
The lighting scheme rendered Staples in silhouette, leading your eye away from him even as his crisp, intense rapping held your attention — a neat inversion of the typical pop-star encounter.
Staples' visual approach wasn't covering for a lack of charisma. Even if you couldn't see his face, the way he moved his body around the stage told you this was a guy who knows how to be watched. (Knows too well, perhaps: In his song "Dopeman" he vividly describes being set up by the feds.)
But his goal was getting you to move past that base-level fascination — to look with him, not at him.
Toward the end of the concert, Staples relaxed his stance ever so slightly to perform a pair of thumping EDM collaborations — "Smoke & Retribution," with Flume, and "Ghost," with Major Lazer and With You — that finally allowed the audience the pleasure it was craving.
But then he came back for an encore and did the title track from "Summertime '06," a haunting, slow-motion ballad in which he confesses his doubts about his ability to forge a stable life with a lover.
"This could be forever, baby," he sang, standing perfectly still behind a microphone stand. "This could be forever, maybe."