Vince Staples: Big Fish Theory review – keen observations on the perceptions of artists over experimental electronic production

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Vince Staples is one of the most talented and fascinating figures in hip-hop today. Over the past three years, Staples has been prolific releasing a new project every single year. The brilliant Hell Can Wait EP in 2014, his Def Jam debut, his debut album Summertime ’06 in 2015 and last year summer’s Prima Donna EP which was accompanied by a 10-minute long short film. All three projects were outstanding, polished and focused with great production and Staples’ breathless flow as he documented the hellish environment he grew up in North Long Beach, Los Angeles as a former Crip member. In three short years, he has always been in the conversation around hip-hop culture as a prominent subject for blogs and magazines who want his opinion on everything. Last year, he made dozens of short videos in which he shared his opinion on anything and everything. He did so many of these videos that I couldn’t imagine him enjoying them but I enjoyed his clever wit and watched every single one of these I could find. It’s no surprise why everyone wants his opinion on things, he is a very intelligent, funny and quick-witted individual with obscure pop culture references all delivered in a dead-pan tone that you can never tell if he’s being serious or tongue-in-cheek. Over the past few months Staples began to appear as a feature on several electronic and EDM tracks collaborating with artists such as Flume, Clams Casino and GTA. He also appeared on the track “Ascension”, the first track from the latest Gorillaz album, Humanz. It shouldn’t have been that much of surprise then that Big Fish Theory is full of experimental electronic production.

Electronic music is such a broad genre that it would be foolish to call the production on Big Fish Theory simply “electronic”. There are so many sub-genres many I’ve never heard of or listened to. But I am of course familiar with techno, house and UK garage which are some of the genres I can most identify on this album. Techno is the most prominent influence on the album specifically Detroit Techno and I noticed some House influence in the pop hooks but I can’t tell the difference between different sub-genres of House so you’ll have to forgive my ignorance. UK garage is the most interesting sound to me though because it’s the last thing I would have imagined Vince Staples rapping on but there it is on the first track on the album “Crabs in a Bucket.”

“Crabs in a Bucket” builds up with an eerie atmosphere, electronic synths and some high-pitched vocals. Staples’ vocals come in and there’s thumping bass as Staples frantically raps in his effortless flow. The bass gradually becomes more warped and frenetic and Kilo Kish sings in her sweet voice on the outro. If you’re not familiar with UK garage, it’s a genre of electronic music originating in the early 90s in the UK which often features a distinctive 4/4 percussive rhythm and pitch-shifted vocal samples. If you’re curious enough to listen to any though you might not see the influence on “Crabs in a Bucket” but if you listen to Burial it will be crystal clear. Burial’s version of UK garage in the 2000s was much darker than that it’s 90s predecessor it’s often called “future garage.” Co-produced by Zack Sekoff, who produced four tracks on the album, and Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, it’s a very good homage to the genre which developed grime. Although, Big Fish Theory, is much less lyrical than Summertime ’06 and also much shorter at only 36 minutes, Staples comes through with great flow and insightful lyrics. “Crabs in a Bucket” is an idiom which refers to an individualistic mentality which ensures that no one succeeds. The lines “need white women at the shows unconscious / If not that then topless, earned all this” possibly refers to hyper-masculinity in hip-hop and juxtaposes the white women who consume hip-hop which is mostly made by black men and the long history of white women’s festishation of black men. The lines “nails in the black man’s hands and feet / put him on a cross so we put him on a chain” suggests Staples is comparing the mass incarceration of black men to the crucifixion of Christ.

The second track on the album is “Big Fish” which was released as the second single. It’s a bass heavy club-banger produced by Christian Rich (Kehinde and Taiwo Hassan) featuring a catchy chorus from Juicy J. It’s the one of the most accessible tracks on the album and could easily be on the radio unlike most of the tracks on the album. On this song Staples reflects on his modest success financially and how he’s made it out of the dire situation he was in: “it’s funny I was going crazy not too long ago.” Watch any interview with Vince Staples and you’ll know that he cares about being financially stable because money is the most important thing where he comes from and in most places in the world and it can get you out of where you come from where someone like Vince might been killed by another black person or the police. “Alyssa Interlude” samples an Amy Winehouse interview. Staples was influenced by the Amy Winehouse documentary Amy making Prima Donna, he saw how badly she was treated by the press and her family when she became famous. The inclusion of the sample points to the perception of artists but on the outro Staples sings “Raindrops on my windowsill / longing for your nature’s feel” reminiscing about someone he once knew and loved, this is overlayed with a beautiful Temptations sample. Produced by GTA, “Love Can Be…” is such a catchy track. Damon Albarn sings on the intro and Kilo Kish’s vocals sound purposeful robotic and her flow is so smooth. Staples’ flow is reliably smooth but his cadence is so quirky perhaps mimicking Kendrick Lamar’s on “Alright” “tell the world I want my Uchies / dodge the groupies, them don’t move me.” Also the Ray J vocals are an inspired choice (interesting parallel Burial also sampled Ray J on his track “Archangel”).

“745” is a certified banger produced by Jimmy Edgar, it features heavy bass and rattling hi-hats. The lines “All my life man I want fast cars, NASCARs / All my life I want runway stars, Kate Moss / All my life I want waves at my front door” are again reminiscent of Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright.” It is followed by “Ramona Park is Yankee Stadium” an interlude which features Vince singing mournful, the track ends with a gunshot transitioning into the highlight of the album “Yeah Right” (more parallels to Kendrick Lamar – “BLOOD.” ends with gunshot transitioning seamlessly into the banger “DNA.”). Yeah Right features KENDRICK FUCKING LAMAR. There are many comparisons to be made between Vince Staples and Kendrick Lamar. They’re two of the most critically acclaimed rappers today, they’re both from poor crime-ridden neighbourhoods in Los Angeles and they’re both super fucking talented. “Yeah Right” is a dream come true, two of my favourite rappers currently (Kendrick Lamar is a GOAT easily but Staples is not quite a GOAT yet but he’s a strong contender)  collaborating for the first time on a banger of a track. The last time this happened was…well last year – Danny Brown, Kendrick Lamar, Ab-Soul and Earl Sweatshirt on “Really Doe.” But boy does this deliver. The hook by Staples is so catchy repeating “boy yeah right, yeah right, yeah right” over and over again.

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He talks about materialism in hip-hop “Is your house big? Is your car nice? / Is your girl fine? Fuck her all night?” then there’s a bridge by Kućka until Kendrick comes in and takes over the track it’s his now. And he absolutely snaps on his verse, switching up his flow and cadence multiple times. “Popular demand, I understand my name is only for conversation” he knows he’s great and he proves it again and again. Co-produced by SOPHIE, a PC music collaborator and Flume it’s a highlight on an album full of highlights.

“Homage” has some of the craziest production on an album full of insanely good experimental electronic production. Staples puts on a braggadocios persona and pays homage to Rick Ross on the chorus “these niggas won’t hold me back” and to A$ap Ferg on the last verse “I’m on a new level.” Also on the last verse Staples says “I’m out in Bristol, bro from the ends got a pistol” I know Staples has listened to Portishead (a trip-hop group from Bristol) and I’ve never heard an American rapper use the word “ends” in this way so perhaps Staples has picked up some UK slang and is paying homage to it or maybe it just rhymes. “SAMO”‘s title pays homage to the iconic black American painter Jean-Michel Basquiat who like Amy Winehouse died at the “cursed” age of 27 and was also an artist who was pimped and treated poorly. The word “SAMO” means same old shit alluding to the mundane nihilistic gang lifestyle he once lived. Party People uses the old trick of having an upbeat instrumental but with deceptively depressing lyrics. The chorus is lighthearted “Party people, yeah / Party people I like to see you dance” and I can easily hear this at a early morning uni student rave but the rest of the lyrics are quite depressing highlighted by the line “how I’m supposed to have a good time / when death and destruction’s all I see?”.

The album concludes with “Bagbak” and “Rain Come Down.” “Bagbak” was the first single released in promotion of the album, the beat produced by Ray Brady sounds the most like what I think Detroit techno sounds like though I’m not very familiar with the genre. It’s futuristic but industrial and on this track Staples delivers his most explicit political lyrics on the album with lines like “prison system broken, racial war commotion / until the president get ashy, Vincent won’t be votin’ / we need Tamikas and Shaniquas in that Oval Office.” In an interview with LA Weekly Staples said “we making future music. It’s Afro-futurism. This is my Afro-futurism” he later said he was trolling telling white people about black culture but I think he’s right. This is afro-futurism at least Staples’ interpretation of afro-futurism whether he intended to or not. He took the sounds of Detroit and other metropolitan cities and crafted a unique forward-thinking vision of the world we’re living in. The final track “Rain Come Down” is slightly more subtly political “I’m the blood on the leaves, I’m the nose on the Sphinx / Where I’m from we don’t go to police” referring to the issue of police brutality disproportionately affecting African-Americans. The track also features some vocals from Ty Dolla $ign on the chorus. Big Fish Theory is a short but powerful album featuring unique experimental electronic production, witty and insightful lyrics, minimal but effective features and a very strong concept. It joins Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN. and Sampha’s Process as three great albums from three great black artists which explore to some extent how black men deal with pressure and anxiety.

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