In a recent Pitchfork interview, Long Beach rapper Vince Staples spoke to the deeper meaning behind his lyrics. “It’s not for me to answer,” He said. “I’m asking, ‘How am I supposed to have a good time when death and destruction is all I see?’ If I knew the answer, I wouldn’t ask the question… The honest-to-God truth is that the things I say in my music might seem reflective of current times, but I have never went outside of me, my home, and my homies. It’s not a bigger picture, it’s just a scene.”
I find it hard to believe that he never thinks beyond his immediate experience, but it’s undeniable that much of the appeal of his music is how well he manages to capture his experience on record. Whether rapping about his drug-addicted father on “Nate” or talking about growing up in Long Beach on “Norf, Norf,” Staples’ music is often about a very specific time and place. In that sense, he’s not different from any number of regional rappers making mixtapes about their neighborhood. Hip-hop is built on local scenes. What Staples has that your average (or even above-average) young street rapper lacks is an ability to question the narrative he’s telling, and a sharp sense of self-awareness and perspective.
In some ways, Staples is like a younger, more grounded version of Kendrick Lamar. Kendrick ping-pongs between wanting to be a good Christian, wanting to be a hedonistic rap superstar, and wanting to stay true to his roots. Staples, on the other hand, calls shenanigans on all of it, approaching both his new fame and his rough upbringing with a clear-eyed sense of distance. From day one Staples has questioned hip-hop tropes and cliches. He understands why people become gangbangers or drug dealers, but is also aware of what a lose-lose situation it is. On this album, he’s taking a long hard look at the success he’s achieved, pointing out the high cost of fame and vampiric qualities of the press. “Yeah Right,” the banger that features Kendrick, is about questioning the fantasy world that rappers portray. The title and chorus are meant to be sarcastic, as in, “yeah, right.”
“Is your house big? Is your car nice?
Is your girl fine? F*** her all night?
Is you well paid? Are your shows packed?
If your song played, would they know that?
How the thug life? How the love life?
How the workload? Is your buzz right?
Do the trap jump? Is the plug right?
Got your head right? Boy, yeah right”
Staples’ 2015 album “Summertime ’06” was fantastic, but also pretty dark and monochromatic. No ID’s beats were sparse and menacing, and there was a hopelessness to that album. Some of that appears on “Big Fish Theory,” but the in general the album is more clubby and, well, fun. Part of that has to do with the diversity of producers. Most of “Summertime ’06” was produced by No ID, but there are nine different producers here, many of them more known for dance music than hip-hop. They include Sekoff, Christian Rich, SOPHIE, GTA, Edgar, Ray Brady, and Flume. Most of the beats fall somewhere between futurist dance music and DJ Mustard-inspired club rap. Staples himself has referred the album as being afro-futurist. It’s definitely more uptempo and weird than his previous offerings, while still fitting his flow.
“I’m on a new level/I’m too cultured and too ghetto” he raps on “Homage.” That describes the sound of the album. While the production is in the range of club rap/trap music, it’s got a weird arty edge to it. The punishing 808s on “Yeah Right” are contrasted with glitchy industrial clanging. The bass music of “Homage” is tweaked with electronic blurbles and odd breakdowns. It’s not quite in the indie rap vein of Danny Brown, but it’s definitely pointing in that direction while still sounding like a SoCal rap album. It manages to sound like an album that would appeal to both the Coachella white hipster crowd and the Hot 97 club rap crowd. That’s no mean feat.
If you are worried that Staples’ clubbier beats will be accompanied by clubbier (i.e. dumber) lyrics, fear not. There are no odes to popping bottles with strippers and driving fast. Even though the chorus of “Party People” is all about party people, but the verses are about being so depressed you want to kill yourself instead of hitting on hot stewardesses:
“Off the rail, might off myself
Bored with life as I board this plane
Stewardess asked if I need help
Maybe baby, what’s your last name
Hopefully it still ain’t been changed
Something about you make me not doubt you
I wuss out as my brain scream louder
Asking when I’m going to blast myself
Couple problems my cash can’t help”
There are some notable guest spots, namely Kendrick Lamar, Damon Albarn, and Juicy J, but it is Kilo Kish’s guest vocals that really ground the album. Every rapper has a sexy R&B singer singing hooks, but Kilo is not just there to add some melody and an entry point for more mainstream fans. Her voice is all over the album, acting as a counterpoint to Staples. She defuses the exaggerated machismo that is a hallmark of a lot of rap music, and helps to make “Big Fish Theory” a more honest and unguarded experience. Staples seems to identify with or at least be simpatico with women in a way that is rare in the dudes-only hip-hop world. “Alyssa Interlude” features a long soundbite from the late Amy Winehouse discussing her self-destructive behavior. Staples’ has taken inspiration from Winehouse, and particularly from “Amy,” the heart-wrenching 2015 documentary that shows how the paparazzi, alongside Winehouse’s parasitical family and management, drove her to her death.
Staples continues to draw parallels between himself and Winehouse, something he first explored on last year’s “Prima Donna.” He also calls himself the new River Phoenix and has a song about Basquiat. Clearly the tales of self-destructive artists who were killed by their success is something that resonates with him. Hopefully the many cautionary tales he’s citing are enough to keep him from coming derailed. “Big Fish Theory” sees Staples evolve as a rapper and an artist, and prove himself as a singular talent in hip-hop.