The Artful, Subdued Translations of Modern Pop

All music is a matter of translation. For eons, artists have interpreted the human experience using a number of techniques. The most skillful practitioners, from Aretha Franklin to Kendrick Lamar, nurtured innovation with an inquisitive ear, distilling the summits and cavernous ravines of love, ecstasy, rage, and anguish with beauty and unmistakable talent. On “When Sparks Fly,” a mid-album cut from Vince Staples’ fifth and newest full-length, Ramona Park Broke My Heart, the 28-year-old rapper adds to the tradition, suggesting that in the act of translation there is grandeur, and within the subtle interpretation of one form into another, there exists the opportunity for something to live as it never has.

What Staples has achieved on the song is not novel—this era is all about the relentless unmaking and remaking of art, commerce, and identity—but “Sparks” should not be dismissed so easily. It is one of the smartest interpretations of a pop genre I’ve heard in quite some time. Atmospheric and chilled-out, Staples does away with the brand of rap formalism we have come to expect of him and approaches the song from the empathetic stance of an R&B melody. The result is a remarkable feat in an aesthetic project of his that has long been concerned with locating meaning in the inevitable realities that trap us.

Genres are important for designation. They help us categorize and index, and they are often a source of pride. In music, though, genres can be a repository of contradiction or a wealth of wanted excavation. “They strengthen and proliferate; they change and refuse to change; they endure even when it looks like they are dying out or blending together,” the writer Kelefah Sanneh writes in his book Major Labels: A History of Popular Music in Seven Genres. That’s what Staples, in part, has accomplished here, in a remarkable sleight of hand: a unity of opposites, an aching synthesis of a song about the kind of relationships that define us, and why we sometimes associate with dangerous things out of necessity, fear, or lack of choice.

The subject matter on Ramona Park is mired in a hazy desolation. It tells an inelegant and, at points, bloody story about the hells Black men are forced to climb out of and, when all other options fail, succumb to. Staples is a classicist, so it makes sense he would stick to the text in front of him. He intercuts homages to local legends (“DJ Quik”) with the knotty realism of gang life (“The Spirit of Monster Kody”) and tales of growing up in North Long Beach. All of it is backdropped against the prevailing facade of Southern California, its beaches and smog-tinted skies.

As for “Sparks,” it is deceptively granular in its mechanics. It samples a hook by London balladeer Lyves (“No Love”) and borrows drums from a Mobb Deep classic (“More Trife Life”). A winking nod to “I Gave You Power” by Nas, whose early catalog rivals Staples’ own youthful ingenuity, the conceit of “Sparks” is all camouflage, Staples is not, in fact, recalling a relationship with a former partner but with his firearm. Staples is not working for our empathy, and yet the poetry of the song is all about work: how, in the act of remembrance, love works. These are the streets that raised him, the circumstances he’s faced with learned pragmatism. He’s nostalgic—why would it sound like anything other than deep affection? Love is survival in constant, undying practice. A casual listen just won’t do.

What the construction of “Sparks” does is test our understanding of the elements that make an R&B song. It’s not transcendence (a term, Sanneh believes, “suggests an inverse correlation between excellence and belonging”) or reinvention the rapper strives for, but translation on a lower, understated frequency.


Author: showrunner