Review: Vince Staples, Big Fish Theory

Vince Staples and the Curious Hip Hop Condition
By Austin Reed ,

I’ve never been great at predicting weather patterns. In fact, I’m notoriously bad at it. Any time I try my hand at solving for the meteorological unknown, it’s a near-certainty that I’ll not only be wrong—I’ll be diametrically wrong. In all likelihood, the most plausible way for California to bounce out of its drought would be for me to fly into LAX just long enough to predict that the state would soon experience a really long drought.

Over time, this has become something I’ve learned to accept, but it’s also become clear that my ineptitude in the way of estimating stuff isn’t limited to the weather. It applies to almost everything. Pattern prediction simply is not my game, and any opportunity I have to reverse the stigma almost always ends with nervous fidgeting and errant “I TOLD YOU GUYS I WASN’T ANY GOOD AT THIS KIND OF THING,” exclamations. Which I guess explains why the current state of dance music as it relates to hip-hop is giving me such a weird tick.

Make no mistake: It’s not like it materialized out of thin air. There is something happening with dance music’s trajectory, and it’s kind of complicated. Last week, while a couple friends and I were reminiscing about Disclosure’s brilliant 2013 Settle LP, it occurred to me that the house-centric dance music that I thought would swoop in and restore humanity to the genre has completely evaporated. The brothers Howard were, by my forecast, supposed to bring about this total line change in how culture viewed dance music. It would become more sophisticated and more respected and so widely appreciated that the de facto dance music definition once held by EDM would be updated in entirety and perpetuity.

Per usual, my prediction didn’t even come close. Instead, as spring 2015 transitioned into summer 2015, EDM began its slow transition from bass-heavy wobbles and corrugated Family Feud buzzers to a less melodic, more sample-based approach. “Womp-womp” was replaced by “pew-pew,” and rigid directional changes were abandoned in favor of syrupy slow-pace vacillations. Aviici traded seats with DJ Snake. It may have sounded a bit more stylish, but it certainly wasn’t any less bombastic.

Actually, it may have been even more problematic, and here’s how: Whether by design or otherwise, this new definition comprised a trap-heavy backbone, which made collaborations with hip-hop artists feel organic and, in a way, necessary to the evolution of hip hop. On the surface, it made total sense; at least a significant portion of every rap artist’s value eventually falls into the hands of the producer, so at this point, tracing a line between dance music’s present and hip hop’s future wasn’t exactly an extreme jump. Moreover, genres are supposed to inform evolution in other genres. Music has always behaved this way; cross-aisle inspiration might actually be the most critical ingredient to a classification’s bell curve. And I’m not in the business of questioning natural progression.

I’m just saying there are heavy implications involved in collaborations of this magnitude. There came a moment when the DJ/rapper relationship was so pervasive, it became impossible to tell where hip-hop ended and dance music began. As far as public identity was concerned, the evolution of hip-hop became the evolution of dance music. Some argue this is good for the progression of both genres. I argue that, even in its best-case scenario, it’s confusing. And would ya look at that? This is one prediction I actually got right.

It has become confusing. Blurred lines have mutated into amorphous gateways, and I semi-regularly mistake certain DJs for rappers (and vice versa). In my two-dimensional pea-brain, the only means for course correction would be for a hip-hop artist to emerge that uses dance music in such an obviously retrospective way, the line resurfaces crisper and more well-defined than ever before. This artist would need to rely on a previously accepted definition of dance music so prevalent, there’s no mistaking the message. But who on earth would have the self-awareness, confidence and wherewithal necessary to pull off something like this?

The answer is Vince Staples, the motor-mouthed Long Beach emcee who, over the course of just three years, two EPs and a long-play, has proven to be one of the more formidable presences not just in hip-hop, but in the fabric of music altogether. Lyrically, Staples is a monster; his natural staccato, vocal tone and writing prowess are in a league of their own. But what makes him so completely indispensable is his ear for the end-product. Forward-facing board runners like DJ Dahi, Christian Rich, and Jimmy Edgar have become household names amid Staples’ projects, while Kilo Kish has all-but become his resident guest vocalist. These variables are but a means to a specific end that only Staples can accurately capture, which is to say: The Vince Staples aesthetic is fluidly unique and inescapably futuristic.

That word “futuristic” is important to remember when digesting Staples’ ferocious second LP, Big Fish Theory. Because if I was mincing words, “futuristic” is just about the best word I (or Staples, per his previous Twitter posts) could use to describe it. “Futurism,” in this sense, exists as a clearly traced line between his own rap prowess and the production chops of his collaborators, which as I’m writing this is a very forward-leaning concept. Staples doesn’t have time for ambiguity, so he chooses not to fuck with it at all, ever.

But what’s most intriguing about Staples’ commitment to clarity here is that the dance music undertones most often-employed on Big Fish Theory center around the Detroit techno and early Chicago-era house sounds—decidedly past-tense dance music engines. More recent claims to dance music’s identity are likely more widely accepted, so common sense suggests that this implementation is counterintuitive. And normally, it would be. But “normally” is tough to support when the industry standard begets half-baked bass production and corny, meaningless lyrics. Staples understands this on a visceral level, and Big Fish Theory works best with this point of view top-of-mind.

In fact, to say Staples is subverting the industry standard would be to diminish his ambition and tenacity as an artist. “Fuck the entire status quo forever,” seems like more of a Staples-esque mantra than “I’d like to make people second-guess their opinion of hip-hop music.” And assertions of this caliber are only bolstered by the thematic inner-workings of Big Fish Theory.

Because Theory is more than just a future-facing hip hop record. It presents (and attempts to solve for) a fundamental battle within the human condition: the primal desire to fulfill every carnal craving in every format, versus the spiritual desire to understand and accept one’s place in the universe. “Adam, Eve / Apple Trees / Watch out for the snakes, baby,” Staples croons rather plainly on “745.” When it comes to providing thematic context, more prominent examples exist than the Book of Genesis. But Staples’ decision to reference the Bible mirrors his decision to lean heavily on J Dilla, Frankie Knuckles and Larry Heard throughout the majority of Big Fish Theory’s production. These are high-level decisions to make, and the fact that they’re purely preferential only means Staples is even smarter than we originally thought.

For as forward and transgressive as Theory is, very little goes unexplained. In the moments when Staples is undoubtedly himself (“Big Fish”, “Love Can Be”, “SAMO”), you marvel at how refreshing the house-heavy beats, samples and production bleed together against his bars. In the moments when the production favors a more pop-centric approach (“Crabs in a Bucket”, “745”, “Yeah Right”), Staples’ verses seem surprisingly subdued, as if his natural urgency has converted to laid-back existentialism.

But the philosophical influences aren’t just surface-level. Intrinsic depth courses throughout all of Theory—most notably in tracks that work hardest to establish Staples’ frame of mind while recording the album. We witness a jaded dismissal of fame and celebrity on “Crabs in a Bucket”, a regretful assessment of his materialistic wish list on “745”, an ethereal relationship with Amy Winehouse on “Alyssa Interlude”, and a feral struggle against propagandistic worldly tendencies on “Party People”.

Of course, none of these influences are too steeped in their own austerity. Stylistically, Staples knows how to convey thought-provoking material in a way that sticks. The perennial production partners (Sekoff, Christian Rich, Jimmy Edgar, Flume) and vocal mainstays (Kish, Kucka, ASAP Rocky) are once again in play on Theory, but where Staples gets innovative in his collaborations, it pays off. Juicy J throws back to early-era Memphis rap on “Big Fish” Damon Albarn and Ray J contribute rife versatility to album high point “Love Can Be….” And Ty Dolla Sign gives album closer “Rain Come Down” the languid, definable depth needed to cut Staples’ rigid bravado in half.

But when it comes to showing off the diverse expanse of Big Fish Theory, no track succeeds as marvelously as “Yeah Right”, the album’s highest and most explosive moment. I’ll say it right now: SOPHIE and Flume should collaborate more often, because the combination of found-sound highs and artificially guttural lows results in a style as critically accessible as it is entirely new. And on literally any other track, the production would dominate discussion. But “Yeah Right”, seems to be the track Staples decided to throw the kitchen sink at, as it also features a Kendrick Lamar verse as combustible as any verse included on DAMN. Which leads me to assert two things: 1) Kendrick Lamar may actually be impervious to bad bars, and 2) Three years was WAY too long to wait for a collaboration between Lamar and Staples.

Now that I think about it, maybe the most confounding element of Big Fish Theory is how, despite its penchant for existential undercurrents, the album still feels holistically club-ready. These tracks are deep, but they’re also bangers by nearly every definition. Technically, this isn’t new territory; DAMN. arguably accomplished the very same juxtaposition in a “best practice” kind of way. But Big Fish Theory wins in a way DAMN. can’t because it takes the time to expose the blurred lines and, in a very Staples-ish way, satirize them. Rather than contributing to a constantly shifting, hip-hop-indebted pathway, he goes back to the source of dance music and partners with producers who pay homage to it in fresh, unique ways. This is Big Fish Theory in its basest form: A truly progressive, existential, emotionally saturated hip-hop album that establishes the value of dance-centric collaboration by reminding us that it’s exactly that. And it will win this way, every single time. At least that’s my prediction. A MINUS

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