For the full three minutes that it takes Vince Staples to perform "Smile" live for the first time, he opens his eyes for a total of about five seconds.
He has his hands in his pockets for the first half of the performance and barely moves except for to wiggle his shoulders on a downbeat or rock back and forth as if to loosen his Converse from some superglue on the stage floor. The lighting is harsh — green from above, and a white light from below that has the effect of casting enormous shadows around his mouth and eyes. Though he's on The Tonight Show, backed by The Roots, Staples looks like he's all alone in the room and maybe on planet Earth.
every line of "smile" is a gut punch
The song, "Smile," is off his recent EP Prima Donna. It's about guilt and depression, and though this performance doesn't include the minute-long outro of Staples whispering "sometimes I feel like giving up" nearly 15 times, it's just as haunting. He delivers this song, more so live than on the EP, in a harried mutter. Like someone who's delivering a book report and would rather die than have to stand at the front of the class for another moment, even though they're super prepared. Every line of it is a little gut punch. He even added a new verse that doesn't appear on the recorded version: "I watched them take the blackness out the pyramids / Poison the water for the darker out in Michigan / Like what's the point of breathing, I think I'm missing it? / I think I wanna put this razor to my wrist again."
The song opens and closes with a flat delivery of "How you feeling everybody, hope you had a nice day." But the second time, Staples actually smiles. It's really more of a smirk, like I just used the falsely optimistic artifice of late night TV to tell America that it's torturing me.