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D. Watkins

Vince Staples: The next Larry David?

This article contains some spoilers for season 1 of "The Vince Staples Show."

That Netflix's "The Vince Staples Show" turned out to be hilarious should have been expected, at least by those who have known for years how funny the hip-hop star is, through his dead-pan social media presence or on-screen roles like "Abbott Elementary" recurring character Maurice. But more importantly, "The Vince Staples Show" is also the kind of programming so many Black viewers have been waiting for. At first glance, some might compare it to Donald Glover's groundbreaking "Atlanta," because they're both offbeat comedies made by and about rappers. But in a way, it's more like Larry David's "Curb Your Enthusiasm," for us — a layered, wry comedy about the fictionalized everyday life of a professional artist in Southern California (Long Beach, in Staple's case, compared to L.A.'s westside) navigating absurd situations with dry wit.

Over the years, Hollywood has been working to diversify the African American stories it tells. For the most part, we have moved beyond the days of audiences seeing only a single token Black character — if that — and of performers only being considered for roles such as a driver, maid or burglar. Black-led comedies like "Martin" and "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air," and more recently, HBO's "Insecure," have been met with great success, not to mention acclaimed dramas like "Power," "The Chi" and "Snowfall," just to name a few, as well as countless biopics and other films. Representation of the depth and breadth of the Black experience matters — we are rich, we are poor, we are cops, we are robbers, we are silly, we are stressed out, we are in love. We are regular people with very regular problems.

"The Vince Staples Show" adds another layer, depicting a Black celebrity as a regular person, not just a glamorous idol, with a penchant for stumbling into situational irony. This begins in the pilot when Vince is arrested and taken to jail. Vince enters the holding cell as a famous rapper to his fans, and a stranger to those unaware of his work. The cops know him too, as law enforcement tends to keep tabs on artists who speak out against police corruption and violence. I know they do because I've experienced it. 

In 2018, I was filming HBO's "The Slow Hustle" with actor/director Sonja Sohn, best known for starring as Det. Kima Greggs in "The Wire." We had just finished hours of filming and were starving, so I recommended a relatively inexpensive restaurant we hit with the crew. About five of us sat down and ate like we'd never seen a meal before. Sonja and I stayed out a little later as we were in the middle of a heated debate about Baltimore, policing, activism, and all of the other themes of her film. I got ready to drop her off for the night, but right before I pulled onto the interstate, loud sirens and bright lights sped up behind my car, drowning out the music of our conversation. 

"What do these people want?" Sohn said. 

“A bunch of nothing,” I said.  

I have this joke I like to pull when I get stopped by the police with another person in the car. First, I ball my face up in fear, then look at my passenger and say, "There's a gun under your seat. I can't afford to go away right now. You take the charge, and I'll ensure you're good as soon as you get out."

I didn't want to freak Sonja out, so I kept my joke to myself. But the reality is that I got pulled over so much those days I had to figure out ways to have fun with it. After about a three-minute wait, a stocky, broad-shouldered Black officer eased into the passenger-side window of the car. Sonja eyed the cop.

“Hello, sir. How can I help you today?” I said in my most pleasant voice. 

“Do you know how fast you were going back there?” 

“My apologies, we were filming all day," I said. "I was just trying to get my friend home.” 

“Oh, I know who you are, that's why I pulled you over,” the cop said, looking at Sonja. “You keep playing in those TV shows and making us proud — keep making our department look good. We need you to do that!” 

She and I burst out laughing. 

“And you!” the cop interrupted, turning to me. “Keep writing those books and telling our young brothers the truth. They need to know both sides because it's real out here, and I don't want them to end up with me!”

Was he ordering us to go make art?

“Yes sir,” I said out loud.

We were both thankful that her actual TV fame — and my own situational fame, as an author who writes about Baltimore — delivered us from what could have been a bad situation. I was reminded of that moment when watching the jail scene in "The Vince Staples Show" pilot. Vince's fame delivers him from danger, but it also puts him in difficult predicaments while he waits for bail.

Most of his fellow inmates don't care they're in with a celebrity. They have more pressing issues at hand. But then there's that one inmate, Robb (Christopher Meyer), who takes this chance encounter as an opportunity to get noticed. He begins to perform, but Vince cuts him off mid-track. 

“I don’t really be f***in with the music like that,” Vince tells him. “You see what that s**t did to Michael Jackson. It's just my job, for real.” 

This bit of irony — a famous rapper giving that response — is an insight into what makes this show particularly funny. We expect hip-hop artists to be in love with their genre, just like we expect professional athletes to dream about the sport they play all day. But it is just a job for some musicians — it's their 9 to 5. So no, Robb, Vince won't be accompanying you to the studio or featuring your vocals on his new album that he probably doesn't even want to make but will because he has to make money to survive.

And then there's Poke (Rafael Castillo), who doesn't care about the music industry, fame, or the police officers giving Vince special treatment. He knows about Vince's popularity, but he sees him as a trophy. This is a side of Black fame that often pops up in the media but is rarely explored in art. A person might make a little money and get a little fame, but not enough to deliver most of their family, let alone whole neighborhoods, into security. At the same time, they still want to spend time in those neighborhoods and break bread with their people, while success also makes them targets of misguided or jealous people who want to do them harm. Poke has beef with Vince that stems back to the neighborhood, and when he sees Vince in jail, he is excited to settle their score. Vince makes bail just in time.

"Curb Your Enthusiasm" also launched its new (and final) season with Larry (Larry David) getting arrested. He travels to Atlanta and ends up in custody for violating Georgia's Election Integrity Act after handing his friend Leon's Auntie Rae (Ellia English) a bottle of water while she waited in line, where she had been for hours, to vote. Larry's holding cell, where he diagnoses another inmate with lactose intolerance, is depicted as much more pleasant than the jail Staples faced. Nobody was going to shank Larry David or sell him on the cell block for a pack of smokes. "The Vince Staples Show" consistently finds new ways to break down race in America, showing how Black people are seen and depicted versus reality.

In another episode, Vince is at a bank trying to get a loan when robbers burst in, and he just happens to be friends with the assailants. (If this scenario played out on "Curb," Larry might not know the robbers personally, but I could see him critiquing their methods.) In this episode, Vince explains to the robber that the consequences of his actions would be different because of his approach and his race. The bank robber realizes this when they get to the vault and it’s already empty.

“How are we the second robbery here today?” the bank robber asks. 

“In all fairness, you're the first robbery here today," Vince replied. "This was a heist.” 

“What's the difference?”

“It's simple: You pull a heist, you George Clooney," Vince says. "You rob a bank, you are Queen Latifah.” 

Other episodes explore the dynamics of Black family cookouts — another coincidental parallel to the current "Curb Your Enthusiasm" season, in which Larry gets himself into trouble at a Black church barbecue — along with annoying low-budget amusement parks and the dangers of being just famous enough to be recognized. The show nods to Quentin Tarantino movies, the decline of O.J. Simpson, and many other cultural references. It's so complex that each of the five episodes deserves more than one watch. 

Larry David's "Curb" is now in its twelfth and final season, wrapping after more than 20 years, off and on. I know many people who did not quite connect with its humor in the beginning only to later fall in love once they got its vision and tone. Netflix only gave us five episodes of "The Vince Staples Show," but hopefully a second season will be announced soon. This brief visit to Vince's world is just enough to leave fans wanting more.

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