Anyone who follows Vince Staples on Twitter would be well aware of his status as a quasi-pundit on all aspects of culture. The 23-year-old Long Beach rapper has always had a lot to say, a trend that shows no signs of stopping on his second full-length record, Big Fish Theory. Staples cements himself as one of the most forward-thinking voices in rap with a tight 36-minute album that embraces his usual lyrical precision over dystopian electronica.
There is an icy nihilism to Staples’ lyrics, particularly the boots-on-the-ground reportage of his first LP, Summertime ’06. He has always been preoccupied with rendering his past experiences in stark detail – confession, no matter how dark. In contrast, his most recent EP, Prima Donna, began with the suicide of a young rap star burdened by fame, and then rewound to shine a light on the dark path that led him there. Big Fish Theory continues along these lines as an album keenly aware of the morning after the club.
He largely avoids political statements outside of scant moments on ‘BagBak’ where he utters the phrase, “we need Tamikas and Shaniquas in that Oval Office/ Obama ain’t enough for me we only getting started.” In the same song, he tells the current president to “suck a dick” – yet, on the whole, his criticisms are more internal. The transience of celebrity, death, destruction, and suicidal tendencies are in the foreground. Staples came from a life of gangs and violence, and as a result, he is highly conscious of his mortality. As a black entertainer, he realises the only thing that’s really changed is the environment. Nowhere are these themes more apparent than in the brief ‘Alyssa’s Interlude’ which features an excerpt from an interview with Amy Winehouse before her tragic death.
Due to the production, Staples is more fleeting than previous releases, yet sharp as ever and no less efficient with his words.
His previous LP was soundtracked by producers like No ID and DJ Dahi, in a more traditional rap landscape. While Prima Donna embodied a different sound, Big Fish Theory surprises yet again with its murderer’s row of electronic producers like Zack Sekoff, Flume, GTA, Sophie, Jimmy Edgar, reliable hitmakers like Christian Rich and all-around wunderkind Justin Vernon (Bon Iver). The production here is largely based on house music and Detroit techno, although there are hints of G-Funk and industrialism. In this sense, Big Fish Theory is Staples’ Yeezus, with its avant-garde attitude and abrasive tendencies. However, it serves a bigger purpose than Kanye’s maximalism. To borrow a parlance, every corroded track on here absolutely bangs, standing in glaring opposition to Staples’ despair – “How am I supposed to have a good time when death and destruction is all I see?” This duality creates a claustrophobic tension to the album, even as you can’t help but nod your head.
Much like the nature of celebrity that Staples examines, the guests here are largely ghosts. They do their jobs and then disappear. ASAP Rocky provides some hype, Ray J some harmonies, Damon Albarn whispers a few backing vocals. Long-time friend Kilo Kish offers herself up on five tracks, her voice providing grace to the rough instrumentals. The biggest features are Ty Dolla $ign’s digitised hook on ‘Rain Come Down’ and Kendrick Lamar’s fiery turn on ‘Yeah Right’ on which he and Vince poke some of the air out of rap’s more hedonistic affinities.
Big Fish Theory is both a natural progression and an unexpected detour. It is both inventive and open. Staples shows no signs of trouble adapting to the unusual production here. It is in that contrast between the Afrofuturism production and the hopelessness that he describes that he miraculously provides himself, and the listeners, with a form of catharsis.
Released on June 23rd via ARTium, Blacksmith and Def Jam Recordings