Vince Staples rides waves of brilliance at First Ave

Vince Staples performing at Eaux Claires festival in 2016.

Vince Staples performing at Eaux Claires festival in 2016. Amanda Schwinghammer

If you’re still wondering what sets Vince Staples apart from so many other rappers, his show dubbed last night at First Avenue, part of what he’s dubbed “The Life Aquatic Tour,” was a good way to find out.

The delightful "Hello, Lakisha" set the stage for opener Kilo Kish’s long set of reflective, bubbly, and mesmerizing material, which floats so amorphously between pop, rap, and R&B it's hard to even want to define it. Her backing videos played with the isolation and anarchic hostility lying just beneath mundanity, incorporating gradually unhinging dances that featured phone selfies and three-ring binders. And her onstage energy drifted between casual pep and unbridled chaos. She mostly exercised a restraint to match her music’s relaxed execution, but would on occasion violently thrash around the stage, ripping papers or smashing a briefcase to the ground. Her individual take on today’s spacey, reverbed rap/R&B sound distinguished Kilo Kish as an artist deserving close attention.

Staples’ set opened with the sound of seagulls -- the intro to "Prima Donna" -- a comparatively low-key beginning that allowed the hype to build as the crowd swarmed the front en masse. Despite the MC’s striking portrayals of personal experience and stripped-down stage presence, this was a massive show, with blaring bass and flashing lights. Staples paced the stage with menacing enthusiasm through a long string of material drawn mostly from Prima Donna, Summertime '06, and Hell Can Wait. Despite his rep as a comic orator and outspoken personality, earned by his sardonic Twitter account and hilarious interviews, he was surprisingly silent between songs, focusing instead on his razor-sharp lines and the pointed flow of the music.

From a technical standpoint, few working rappers can touch Staples’ live set, which features the occasional backtrack but primarily relies on nothing but his charismatic delivery -- his trademark voicing, laid-back yet animated, speaks volumes in tone alone. With beats as massive and bass-heavy as his (including some insane production from Clams Casino, No ID, and Mikky Ekko), he could have just phoned in his own performance, but amid the light show, video projections, and wall of sound was a darkly poetic storyteller that demanded engagement.

Visually, three screens showcased a variety of images and waving blue lights just above the audience's heads for an underwater feel, creating a sharp contrast between Staples’ intimate individual performance and the heightened intensity of his effects. The show is clearly ready for clubs and festivals, and Staples’ set fittingly highlighted his guest appearances on EDM tracks, including GTA’s "Little Bit of This," Flume’s "Smoke & Retribution," and "Ghost" by Major Lazer affiliate With You. These sat neatly enough amidst his own material, which verges on the bombastic and experimental side itself for these electronic dalliances to seem less a diversion than a continuation. Like Danny Brown, who’s increasingly leaning toward dance music, Staples embeds the bleak street music that first drew ears on the Shyne Coldchain series into a more subtly vibrant soundscape. His latest single, "BagBak," melds an upbeat production with a combative tone – when he screamed "Tell the one percent to suck a dick" towards the tail-end of his set, he skillfully straddled the line between aggressive rap EDM bounce.

After ending his regular set on the huge "Blue Suede," its off-kilter rhythms leaving the audience struggling to find the one but propelled to move regardless, Staples returned for the equally provocative "Norf Norf." Behind him was an animated postcard saying "Greetings From Long Beach," its letters containing sunny beaches, low riders, and inner city police threatening to disrupt the urban landscape. This transitioned beautifully into the chilling "Summertime," to close the excellent set with some of Staples’ strongest emotional work. Barely lit, with just the gothic Summertime '06 cover art as visual, he stood at the microphone stand and sang the song as if bleeding it, cracking his voice with a vocal fry that emphasized the song's depth. The lines "Pick up the phone, don't leave me alone in this cruel, cruel world," closed out the night, a fun and inspiring display of buoyant rap that nevertheless left the crowd with more than just entertainment.

The crowd: A lot of young kids stoked on the chance to get crazy, and an overcrowded over-21 area upstairs, showcasing the range of people connecting with Staples’ music.

Overheard in the crowd: Two kids looking up lyrics on Genius during Vince's set.

Random Notebook Dump: The DJ playing "Bela Lugosi's Dead" alongside Mike Will Made It and James Blake just before Vince's set got me theorizing on his connection to the danceable bleakness of early goth – though I didn't really get a chance to think it through completely.

Prima Donna
Lift Me Up
Jump Off The Roof
Lemme Know
Birds & Bees
Big Time
Little Bit of This 
Smoke & Retribution
War Ready
Hands Up
Blue Suede

Norf Norf