“I’m just trying to find other ways to convey it instead of saying it over and over again,” says twenty-something rap juggernaut Vince Staples in a recent interview with Vulture. He’s speaking about the prevalence of aquatic sounds in his music, which has become as much of a constant in his outpouring of work as gunshots and scathing remarks delivered in an apathetic tone, yet the quote can be transposed to Vince’s artistic journey in general. On ‘Big Fish Theory’, the rapper changes nothing and everything, preserving his manifesto even in the newfound casings of fame, or something like it, and the most colorful and upending production to grace a hip-hop record this year. It’s thirty-six minutes of pain, perseverance, and persuasion that largely refuse to slow down.
Staples’s plain-spoken and disaffected nature is evident in his music, his interviews, and his Twitter activity. The album’s first single, ‘BagBak’, concludes by informing various systems of control they can “suck a dick because we on now.” As a single entity, the war cry could come off as crude and instigating, but in the context of the ten songs before it, it’s a victorious release from the downtrodden and isolated. Profanity is used sparingly on ‘Big Fish Theory’, with songs like ‘Big Fish’ and ‘745’ utterly free of it, and it’s like noticing the noise trains make only once they stop running by your apartment every day. Staples’s purposeful verbal economy, a frugalness with his words, extends beyond expletives and influences other key moments, such as a verse of distanced couplets in ‘Love Can Be…’ and the repetitive, nearly mechanical hooks such as Juicy J’s on ‘Big Fish’, the relentless jabs of ‘Yeah Right’, and ‘Homage’, which lifts its incantation from a Rick Ross song.
Staples’s debut, ‘Summertime ‘06’, extracted a raw sense of doom from consistently innovative veteran No I.D. and contemporary visionary DJ Dahi, while 2016’s ‘Prima Donna’ EP kept them behind the boards and added James Blake to paint a more thrill-seeking vision that at times leaned into a techno-horror feel. ‘Big Fish Theory’ recruits a new cast of producers, headed by L.A. wunderkind Zack Sekoff and London sound architect SOPHIE, and the result is full of more life than anything previously entered into Staples’s nihilistic discography. This is hip-hop meets electronica in the vein of future bass architect Flume, who shows up only in the credits of the colossal ‘Yeah Right’, yet could have posed as the album’s executive producer. ‘Crabs In A Bucket’ and ‘Love Can Be…’ belong in any current U.K. house mix, utilizing frequent Staples collaborator Kilo Kish’s devastating cadences to full effect, sounding like she could caress and eviscerate you all at once. DJ Mustard meets Cashmere Cat on ‘Big Fish’, prompting an industrial dance party that’s joyously erratic and masterfully strung together, demanding constant attention and lasting all the way through ‘Party People’ eight tracks later. Even ‘Alyssa Interlude’, the most melancholic song on the album, manages to layer a footwork rhythm and pulsating bass under an Amy Winehouse interview and Staples’s drained reminiscences of a departed lover or family member. It doesn’t alienate, it invites.
At the intersection of these precise raps and shimmering beats lies the sonic ethos of ‘Big Fish Theory’, a story that casts out its hero into uncharted territory and finds him standing out by doing the “same old thang” (‘SAMO’). The album’s closest relative is last year’s celebrated ‘Atrocity Exhibition’, in which Danny Brown did lyrical acrobatics over a turbulent tableau and dared to nudge himself into the current hip-hop landscape. Staples rhymes at breakneck paces, but to communicate a point or to generate an energy rather than as a technical showcase. No song other than the last is over four minutes. To listen to ‘Big Fish Theory’ is to witness an artist in his most concentrated form, in regard to both potency and focus.
The one instance in which this intensity wavers is the finale. ‘BagBak’ pulls on the threads of oppression and confinement that ‘Crabs In A Bucket’ puts out, revealing new details about its composition, and in an act of magic it feels as fresh as it did on the day of its release several months prior to the album’s. It’s the ending to the affairs, unwinding with edge, and yet there’s one more song to go. Ty Dolla $ign’s voice surfaces on ‘Rain Come Down’, and he’s the LP’s most mortal voice after half an hour of ethereal guests like Kish, Kučka, and Kendrick juxtaposing with Staples’s piercing intonations. Staples repeats the first verse twice, one charged with references to the Sphinx, JFK, and the West Coast, a potentially notable moment that’s dampened by a final verse departing into a bit of womanizing and meandering.
Vince Staples may not care as much as a Kanye or Kendrick about how people respond to his albums, but art of such high quality begs an attempt to make sense of it all. This isn’t the portrait of the artist as a young man that ‘Summertime’ is, or the exercise in futility that drives Staples to suicide in the ‘Prima Donna’. ‘Big Fish Theory’ is progress via inclusiveness, songs that are as much studies in the perfect crowd-pleaser as they are deliberations on morality and mankind. Vince Staples doesn’t transform. He doesn’t adapt, and he doesn’t compromise. He just keeps swimming, and he shines doing so.
‘Big Fish Theory’ is out now via Def Jam Recordings, a division of UMG Recordings, Inc.