Underground French night clubs will be adding Staples to their rotation soon.
From inaugural major label EP Hell Can Wait to his most recent Prima Donna, No I.D. and ARTium label mate DJ Dahi have produced 90% of the tracks Vince Staples has released. On Big Fish Theory, Staples eschews collaboration with both. Instead, he favors electronic-heavy producers like Flume and SOPHIE. While this doesn’t spell some in-label-under-the-table beef — the album was still released on No I.D.’s ARTium Recordings, after all — it highlights creative differences, significant differences at that.
Big Fish Theory opens with Justin Vernon-assisted “Crabs in a Bucket.” The first minute is spacy, thinly sliced vocals tightly driven between filtered, distorted sounds and ambient coastal noise. It’s hardly recognizable as a Vince Staples track, but when the beat kicks — a sweeping, garage house-derivative kick and snare composite — and when Staples spends two verses rapping frantically staccato — “put me in the MoMa when it’s over with / I used to look up to the sky, now I’m over shit” — it’s immediately clear that we’re meeting a new Vince.
Staples has long envisioned himself within the legion of hip hop’s avant-garde. On Big Fish Theory, he is no different. Yet, what he steps away from is the Lamarian meta-thematic, architectonic experience we saw on Summertime ’06 and Prima Donna. Those pieces both function and frame on the project-level scale: A complete experience calls for total consumption.
Not that Big Fish Theory doesn’t beg to be enjoyed from front to back. But in those past projects, the music was engineered around a larger motive: Certain emotions, certain takeaways seemed to be demanded. What Big Fish Theory sees is Vince stepping away into much more amorphous territory, leaving space for interpretation rather than urging the listener outright to some conclusion. He better understands that artists ask questions, not answer them.
On Big Fish Theory, his experimental tendency has constrained into the microscopic, into the minute elements of the single track. What’s most telling is his choice to release the outro “Rain Come Down” as a single more than two weeks before the official album drop. It’s hard to imagine A$AP Rocky releasing “Suddenly,” Danny Brown dropping “Float On” or Kanye West surrendering “Bound 2” pre-album. Those tracks were essential summits to the larger album at hand, aesthetically and emotionally. It would taint the piece to hear it prematurely.
Not that “Rain Come Down” doesn’t decisively conclude the album. It does. The most ominous bass on the album grumbles between sparse hi-hats, looped gunshots and a solemn recount of his hometown and emotional disconnect from women. Yet, what gets lost is this album as a self-contained entity.
Whether that is devolution or transcendence is up to the listener, I suppose.
It can’t help but seem like a surrender to the fact that most of his fans will only hear the singles and not the album. This comes full circle because beyond all the mention of avant-garde and experimentation, Big Fish Theory is Vince’s most accessible release. For the first time, it seems that Staples has really embraced his role as an artist and entertainer. Not that he’s moved beyond social critique and black advocacy: Those ideas continue to animate much of this album’s lyrical content. However, the significant attention to money, cars and deviant relations with women does mark a major thematic shift in his style.
Sonically, the album strips hip hop down to its snare and hi-hat fundamentals and fuses those minimal canvases with the sounds of electronic dance genres like techno and house. Beyond his new sped-up cadences and more lighthearted tonalities, what’s most distinctive in Big Fish Theory’s 12-track arrangement is its bass lines. While “745” boasts a wonky melody reminiscent of decades-old funk, the bass line in Juicy-J-on-the-chorus “Big Fish” comes straight out the strip club.
There is a certain element of cognitive dissonance that comes with Staples (seemingly) making party music: “Party people, yeah / Party people I like to see you dance.” But this is purposeful, because this album captures the most contradictory image that Vince has yet to publicly reveal. On that very same track — “Party People” — Staples spends time contemplating his anxieties and suicidal thoughts: “Awkward silence, my brain scream louder / Askin' when I'm gon' blast myself / Couple problems my cash can't help.” From track to track, the messages conflict and contradict. He goes from glorifying money and cars (“Big Fish”) to rebuking women (“Love Can Be…”) back to being lost in love and doing his best to appease a beautiful lady (“745”).
The sub-minute “Ramona Park is a Yankee Stadium” bifurcates the album. While the front half of Big Fish Theory reflects the disturbing confusion that comes from being a black man with wealth and fame, he gains a sense of resolve towards the back half of the project. Although some discord is ever-present, this confliction brings him back to square one: to his artistry and innovation. Finding his center point, Staples comes to believe the issue lies in establishment rap, establishment rappers and establishment rapper values. So he condemns them.
“SAMO,” a year-3000-EPA-noncompliant-industrial-factory-farm-Basquiat-commemorative banger, is the album’s most visceral track. Bringing back the dropped-octave aggression of his past work, “SAMO” is his most direct and pointed attack at the hip hop mainstream. Between gut-wrenching booms and an aggravated, judgment day instrumental, A$AP Rocky shows up on the chorus: “Just the same old thing / Watch me do the same old thing / Do the same old thing / Do the same old thing.”
Still, what is ultimately lost is the G-Funk/West coast Gangsta flavor that defines most else of his discography. In breaking open up new creative space, artists always risk turning off part of their fan base. And for those demanding that tuff, bread-and-butter hip hop of his previous releases, Big Fish Theory will frustrate if not alienate.
Nevertheless, beyond the individual nuances of this album, Big Fish Theory marks a larger moment in this decade of hip hop. Although never an official member of the collective, Staples’s affiliation with Odd Future was a crucial catalyst in his career as a rapper. In the nearly 10 years since The Odd Future Tape, we’ve seen the cohort garner attention, explode and eventually dissolve. While many in the larger association could “rap,” only four actually talented lyricists bubbled out: Frank Ocean, Tyler, the Creator, Earl Sweatshirt and Vince Staples. We’ve already had Channel Orange, Cherry Bomb and I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside: We’ve seen those first three come of age. With Big Fish Theory, Staples steps out of his No I.D. babysitting years and finds his own unique sound. In one way, it’s a close to the chapter that was the definitive millennial entry point into left-field hip hop. In another, it signals a new period, one where the exciting brash talents of the early 2010’s have transformed into full fledged artists. Who knows what’s next?