The Epic Rise of Vince Staples: 'Big Fish Theory'
    • TUESDAY, JUNE 27, 2017

    • Posted by: Gus Mirabella

    Summertime '06
    opens with the sound of sea gulls squawking on the beaches of Long Beach, California. In the hour that follows, the listener is quickly moved away from picturesque beaches of Southern California to the dangerous streets beyond. The album, in a way, relays what life is like in Ramona Park, the LB neighborhood where Vince Staples was raised. A quick Google search will tell you all you need to know about the community. Aside from birthing the raising rap star, the LB neighborhood is most notable for it's gang activity. On the aforementioned debut double album, Staples tells you as much. The album is an emotionally jarring interpretation of life on the streets in North Long Beach. Through his own subtlety aggressive brand of hip-hop, Staples delivers the tale with a poignancy incongruent with his age. Consequently, Summertime '06 was a tremendous success both commercially and critically, peaking at 3 on the Billboard Hip-Hop charts and garnering tons of praise from critics.

    Staples followed success with success, releasing his Prima Donna EP the following year to similar praise. Remaining sonically consistent, Staples began to branch off thematically. While Summertime '06 deals with the difficulties of growing up in the hood, Prima Donna deals with the difficulties of newfound success. On "Loco," Staples speaks of "having Kurt Cobain dreams," which was echoed in an excellent short film made in conjunction with the EP.

    Walking through the hallucinogenic Prima Donna Hotel, Staples passes rooms filled with a variety of fallen idols from Jimi Hendrix to Tupac Shakur before breaking into "War Ready." It was an excellent treat, and left everyone wondering what Staples would do next.

    Almost a year has passed since Prima Donna was released and Staples is now 23: still incredibly young, growing increasingly fast. Days ago, the LB MC released his second full-length LP, Big Fish Theory. The record pushes forward Vince's idiosyncratic sound while leaping from the pressures of success to the embrace of success. By no means is this an upbeat or carefree record—Vince's characteristic darkness is alive and well. It often feels like dark cloud is suspended over the sonic landscape. The bounciness of this album can be credited to an embrace of club and house music. While this gives the album a marvelously fresh sound, many aspects of the record are characteristic of Staples. The techno influenced beats are still as stripped back as ever, and his inflection carries the restrained coolness evident throughout his discography.

    Big Fish Theory is a natural progression. The music has evolved, structurally similar but discernibly different from anything pre-2017. Thematically, the album is impressively cohesive within Staples' discography. While Summertime '06 opens with the sound of sea gulls and features the line "we crabs in the bucket" on "Señorita," Big Fish Theory expands on the sea theme. There are sea gulls squawking on "Ramona Park is Yankee Stadium" and the album itself begins with a song actually titled "Crabs in a Bucket." In both situations, he used the phrase to refer to his systematically oppressed people, but on Big Fish Theory, Staples keeps it going by transitioning into "Big Fish." Given the clubby bounciness of the stem, this track sums up the sound of the album. More notably, the "Big Fish" shows thematic progression at the hands of professional progression.

    Staples has gone from being a crab in a bucket to a big fish "up late night ballin'." It follows that the beat was made for the club, as the embrace of EDM is a nod to excesses of fame. The album's opening stretch is cohesive and sets the tone, but by no means does the theme of burgeoning success define Big Fish Theory.

    "Alyssa Interlude" is a pivotal moment on the record. It is the third song and opens with a sample of Amy Winehouse speaking of songwriting and heartbreak. Soon, Vince launches into a sad section more akin to singing than rapping. It is slow and somber, and jives in a really interesting way with a beat that samples The Temptations. While I find the song pretty skippable, it shows Staples branching out in an entirely new way. Brooding about heartache is not how Staples acquired fame. Summertime '06 songs like "Norf Norf" and "3230," in which he raps about gang banging in his hometown, are more central to his songbook. But songs from the same album, like "Summertime," show his ability to speak to and from the heart about love, emotions and the like. So when the next song on Big Fish Theory begins and Gorillaz mastermind Damon Albarn begins singing the refrain to "Love Can Be...," the feeling is disorienting. The boundaries surrounding Staples appear to be shrinking beat by beat. While not every moment on this record works, every moment is interesting and shows tremendous potential.

    The prime moment on this record takes place over the course of four straight tracks towards the end. On "Homage," Vince is at his most defiant over a driven, energetic beat. He says "these niggas won't hold me back," and there's no reason to doubt him. "SAMO," while considerably slower, is equally defiant and badass. The chorus, featuring A$AP Rocky, somehow reminds me of a futuristic Andre 3000, which is obviously incredible. "Party People" is a grooving track that, well, sounds like it is made to party. Ever self-aware, Staples does make note of the hypocrisy of it all, asking "how am I supposed to have a good time when death and destruction are all I see?" On "BagBak," he is at the height of his defiance, telling the one percent, the government and president to "suck a dick, because we on now." Towards the end of the song, Staples circles back to the sea theme. "They found it" he says, "Depth close to 3,230 feet, a deep dive, but within acceptable range. The dive deep into the water leads into the album's conclusion, Ty Dolla $ign collab "Rain Come Down."

    The rain in question is most directly the type of rain in the club, but contextually, the return of water at the end is more significant. There is an undeniable cohesion evident, as the Big Fish Vince recently became faces a growing pool of water. The underlying pressures of fame and freedom are at the heart of Big Fish Theory.

    Some of the verse that Staples spits is just downright awesome. Moments like when he comes into the final verse of "Homage," when Staples says "I'm on a new level, I am too cultured and too ghetto, If you knew better you'd do better" hit hard because it's appreciably high quality rapping. Staples' flow cuts in with a typically bouncy beat that soon drops off to feature frequent collaborator Kilo Kish. Staples' rapping is literally always pretty good, therefore, he doesn't require many features. Kish is also on "Love Can Be" and "SAMO," but otherwise few moments on Big Fish Theory aren't Staples. Juicy J has the braggadocios hook on "Big Fish," while Damon Albarn and Ray J hold the same responsibilities on "Love Can Be…" By the same token, A$AP Rocky joins Staples for the chorus of "SAMO," saying the "same old thing," among other things. All of these moments flow with the album, but not one feature stood out as much as Kucka and Kendrick Lamar's solid features on "Yeah Right," a track which otherwise is dampened by its overwhelming repetition.

    Of course, a repetitive refrain is nothing new for Staples, who uses one on seemingly every song. This can make Staples fairly tiresome to listen to after periods of extended listening, an act that much of his music demands. This has been a Vince trait for years, as Summertime '06 was absolutely littered with repetition from the very start (lift me up, lift me up, lift me up, lift me up). On Big Fish Theory, Vince's structural preferences remain, with songs like "Love Can Be…" featuring the song's title repeated over and over and over…which after some time makes the song easily skippable. This is just one of many example of Staples' repetitious hook trait, but it's not one he should necessarily walk away from. Some of the best songs on the album are filled with super repetitive parts, so it will be interesting to watch how his songwriting structures progress as he ages.

    Staples has a sound and he's honing it. His idiosyncrasy is stunning, considering his age. No one really sounds like Vince Staples, which is quite the feat at just 23 years. The Euro-club beats that back this record and the rapping that fronts them make Vince sound like only he could. He has carved a little slice of the hip hop world for himself, because he is simply doing what no one else is. While their music isn't even remotely similar, it is interesting considering Staples with Detroit rapper Danny Brown. Now age 36, Brown is coming off a tremendous, critically acclaimed record Atrocity Exhibition (for those that recognize the name, it's taken from a Joy Division song). Brown takes from a wide range of influences and his music reflects that—every song has a different ridiculous sample and his rapping could not be duplicated by another. Brown comes to mind because both he and Staples will be opening for Gorillaz on their forthcoming U.S. tour after both contributing to the cartoon band's most recent album, Humanz. The pair works because their sound is a) so very different from each other and b) so very different from anyone else. Naturally, Damon Albarn would be a fan. Rappers like this carve their own little place in the hip-hop spectrum, away from the homogeny of "mainstream" hip-hop (by which I mean hip-hop featuring flute melodies and triplet flows).

    With this in mind, it is anyone's guess where Staples will go from here. Structurally, his songs are the same, and his rapping isn't discernibly better than it used to be. But you can just tell that Staples will be a staple in hip-hop for as long as he wants to be. He is different and he is good, and that goes to his persona as much as his music. He's known as an intelligent, articulate, and generous person—someone that abstains from drugs and alcohol after a childhood marred by membership in the Crips.

    Big Fish Theory is not going to be his work when all is said and done, but nonetheless, it is a damn high quality record. It's as cohesive as Summertime '06, yet far more succinct. Regardless of which record you prefer, Big Fish Theory marks a natural progression in the rise of Vince Staples.

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