Vince Staples’ first EP, Hell Can Wait, was a watershed moment in modern hip-hop for me, as a once obnoxiously staunch believer in the golden age of rap. Though far from a perfect release, for whatever reason ‘Blue Suede’ was the first trap track that truly evoked a meaningful reaction from me. Whilst I can now appreciate that comparing party-oriented rappers like Playboi Carti and Rae Sremmurd with Guru or Doom is not only futile but ignorant, Staples’ combination of cutting social commentary with comedic lyricism and wall-shuddering production was, and still is, completely fresh. If Kendrick Lamar offers a more hopeful outlook on the plight of African-Americans, Staples stares firmly at America’s dark underbelly, and probes it for laughter and scorn in equal measure. He makes eye-opening bangers; tracks with a heart as well as pacemaker-troubling basslines. Needless to say, that trend continues on his latest record.
On paper, Big Fish Theory sounds like a purposefully provocative press release – "watch as Staples flits between UK garage-inspired drum patterns, slapping trap subs and radio-baiting tuneful hooks". Thankfully, the transition from paper to eardrums is relatively smooth. After all, Staples isn’t someone who feels the need to prove anything to anyone, least of all himself – in a recent, laughably scant Reddit AMA, when asked who he’d most like to collaborate with, Staples answered simply “me”. Accordingly, rather than seeming like an attempt to diversify for diversity’s sake, to overcome that fabled second album slump, Staples’ multifariousness feels like a natural by-product of his artistic intention. Vince Staples is nothing if not Vince Staples, and Big Fish Theory is a great distillation of just who that is.
At times, as on ‘Yeah Right’, Staples’ juxtaposition of dissonant sounds with a preposterously overblown pop chorus a la Grimes (producer credits from SOPHIE go some way to explaining that), truly comes across as avant-garde. If Summertime ’06 was defined by monster single ‘Norf Norf’ and Clams Casino’s propensity for dark and brooding beats, Big Fish Theory is best defined as conflicted. Staples sounds just as assured as he ever has, but his voice is a piercing thread of clarity in an often overwhelming jumble of stumbling basslines and jarringly high-pitched synthlines. Few rappers could chew through such a dizzying range of intense productions, but Staples makes it look easy, and is, to my money, one of a select handful of modern artists who could have Kendrick guest on a track and leave a more stark impression on the listener.
In part that’s a result of Staples’ commitment to honestly representing his worldview, holding the party-ready nature of many of the beats in direct contradiction with his verbose deconstruction of braggadocio rap and the place of black musicians in modern America. On ‘Crabs in a Bucket’, he raps “Ain’t I lookin’ lovely on the TV screen? / Battle with the white man day by day / Feds takin’ pictures doin’ play by play.” The oppression of black people is spoken of in the same terms used by the paranoid schizophrenic, the difference being that Staples is depressingly correct in his assertions. As a black artist increasingly faced by the glaringly white media spotlight, not only is he fetishized by predominantly white-produced news outlets, but held under scrutiny for his provocative anti-establishment lyrics – Big Fish Theory finds Staples questioning whether he is exhibit or prisoner.
In the aforementioned AMA, someone asked Staples what he’d have done with his life if he hadn’t made it as a rapper. His response? “Nothing.” It is this blend of nihilistic humour and genuine drive to create that makes his music so compelling. The reason Staples sounds so hungry on a track is just that – there’s nothing he’d rather be doing. The fact that Staples’ debut record was a double-album says everything you need to know about the lucidity of his vision. Regardless of the accepted path, Staples continues to clear out his own route, and Big Fish Theory is all the better for it. A continuously rewarding listen on both the surface and a deeper level, this is already one of the best albums of the year, regardless of genre.
Released June 23, 2017