Vince Staples has never been one to avoid saying what’s on his mind.
The Long Beach, California rapper has gained a reputation for being an outspoken and blunt character in the music industry, offering humorous and often off-the-cuff commentary through his interviews, performances and public appearances.
This somewhat exaggerated approach to his persona manifested itself in 2015’s aggressive “Summertime ‘06” and 2017’s experimental “Big Fish Theory,” establishing Staples as an artist blending traditional West Coast hip-hop with modern production and confrontational lyricism.
His short-but-conceptual “FM!” in 2018 and self-titled album in 2021 were much shorter by comparison, but arguably more focused, diving deeper into Staples’ past and experiences with gang violence through moodier beats and a lower-key delivery.
“RAMONA PARK BROKE MY HEART” comes off as a compromise between the two sides of Staples’ discography; longer and more robust than his previous two albums, but equally as personal and emotionally honest. It also serves as a companion to last year’s album, continuing many of its themes both lyrically and stylistically.
This comes at a cost though, as the longer length adds more repetition than necessary and means some of the less-developed songs come off more as distractions than integral to the flow of the album.
Opening track “THE BEACH” and closing track “THE BLUES” are functional at beginning and ending the album, but don’t stand on their own beyond that. The same could be said about “SLIDE” and “MAMA’S BOY,” two short songs which disrupt the album’s forward progression.
Meanwhile, “LEMONADE” and “PLAYER WAYS” are weak explorations of ideas better executed in other songs and mostly feel like wasted potential. Especially the former, which is an otherwise entertaining track handicapped by an awkward chorus and barely-present Ty Dolla $ign feature.
Thankfully, the remainder of “RAMONA PARK” provides quality material with a purpose, as Staples explores the impact his hometown had on his current worldview through vivid writing and great production.
“AYE! (FREE THE HOMIES)” and “DJ QUIK” kick the album off nicely with reflective verses centering on Staples’ upbringing.
On the former, Staples highlights how he overcame the situations he was born into and hopes the rest of his friends can do the same alongside a strong hook and classic West Coast beat. The latter is more laid-back and details the motivations that led Staples to where he is today while paying tribute to the eponymous DJ Quik.
Lead single “MAGIC” is the first of two collaborations with producer Mustard, who brings his signature bounce to a celebratory anthem about making the best of a bad situation. It’s a stark contrast to “BANG THAT” later on the album, which is much more pensive and paranoid with Staples aggressively threatening anyone who gets in his way.
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“WHEN SPARKS FLY” is a smooth down-tempo track whose excellent writing is its highlight. Staples pens a metaphorical love song that works equally as being about either a partner or a gun, a clever moment that can be appreciated on multiple levels.
Staples and Lil Baby join forces for the first time on “EAST POINT PRAYER” with production from Kenny Beats, who produced the majority of Staples’ previous two albums.
Here, the two artists go into the high-stakes lives they lived before making it in the rap game and how they’ve adapted to becoming famous. Vocally, they compliment each other well, with Lil Baby’s more animated delivery meshing with Staples’ more understated flow.
“SLIDE” finds Staples once again reminiscing on his old, violent lifestyle, seeming to view it as a more simple life than the one he currently leads. It has one of the more simplistic choruses, but the repetition combined with the downtrodden quality of Staples’ voice creates an engaging effect.
Finally, everything talked about on the album seems to lay heavy on Staples’ shoulder on “ROSE STREET.” The song explores how everything he’s seen impacts his ability to truly connect with people on an emotional level, a sobering moment that plays well against the pleading refrains on closing track “THE BLUES.”
“RAMONA PARK BROKE MY HEART” isn’t quite the magnum opus it could have been, but it allows Staples to explore the root causes of much of what he raps about over some consistently great production. In a way, it feels like the end of another era before Staples transitions into a new sound or aesthetic, hopefully one that further matches his unique skill set.