Review Summary: I used to look up to the sky, now I'm over shit.
There’s one word that seems unavoidable when writing about Vince Staples, one word that always seems to circle the paragraphs, the criticisms, prefacing every passage and every thought: Nihilism
. If you’ve had the pleasure of reading his interviews or prose, it is evident that he is well-read, literary, and self-aware to an envious degree. Where writers pontificate around him, he’s often one step ahead, commenting on their own clichés before they have enough time to disown them. Consider his interview with Trevor Noah, where he readily admitted that he likes, ‘saying stuff about black people to white people
,’ on the subject of whether or not Big Fish Theory
was, in fact, ‘Afrofuturism’ (it isn’t.)
In his music, though, Staples invokes pointlessness as a reason to ignore bloat, grandeur, or hubris. On Summertime 06
, Vince’s somewhat underrated debut, this manifested itself as a 50-minute recollection of Venice Beach; gunshots, sunshine, no sleeping, and no eating. He was guileless about the album, often admitting in interviews that music was work, and that, rather than having anything to say, his technical skills merely preceded his desire to rap. Or, to say it another way, Summertime 06
wasn’t about race politics as much as it was a rap album that happened to feature lyrics concerned with race politics, a topic Vince was merely familiar with. That commitment to musical substance over lyrical style made Staples such a compelling rapper back in 2015, and it continues to be the basis of his charm two years later. More than a nihilist, he embraces brevity and the economy of sound to communicate music that, whilst tacitly about things, isn’t inherently topical or otherwise. In those terms, it’s less easy to skirt around immediate thoughts and entertain lengthy missives about something nobody cares about. So, let it be said succinctly: Big Fish Theory
is the best hip-hop album of 2017.
Crude summations aside, it’s worth asking: why would a narcissist and a critic want to write about Big Fish Theory
when it appears resistant to the knotty projections of any one writer? Because it lacks the pretence of most other mainstream hip-hop albums; it’s concise; it pays attention to the music rather than servicing a theme, narrative, or convention, or, at least, it closes the desire to do so by being consistently compelling from a purely musical sense. It isn’t an album infatuated with its own reflection, and Staples isn’t Dorian Gray. He doesn’t kill the vibe by marching into empty spaces unannounced, and his penchant for prudence, both of sound and in words, services the songs rather than his own intentions. That means that the music precedes the intent, a la Wire’s Pink Flag
, or Minutemen’s Double Nickels on the Dime
, or, to use rap appropriate reference points, Nas’ Illmatic
, or any number of Earl Sweatshirt’s songs, feature, and albums. In that regard, it’s easy enough to say that Big Fish Theory
is good because it is precise. It renders Staples’ nihilism in the best possible sense. And it just might be the best rap album of the year, without having any apparent story to tell.
Truthfully, the success of these songs is as much attributable to the selection of producers than it is Vince alone, who slides in well between the sounds of Chicago, Detroit, and London’s East End. Some names, like Christian Rich, are familiar, having contributed to the rapid fire, Future-sampling “Senorita,” now delivering the funk to the album’s most accessible moment, “Big Fish.” Among other more familiar names is Zack Sekoff, who opens and closes the album with appropriate intensity on “Crabs in a Bucket” and “Rain Come Down,” and Flume, who offers his beefed-up trap to album standout “Yeah Right.” Otherwise, Big Fish Theory
leans hard into its bareness, utilizing producers whose trademark sounds oft include sparse use of synths and repetitive bass grooves. GTA are the standouts of this production style, contributing to “Love Can Be…,” whilst PC Music associated SOPHIE steals the show with his gnarly need to pare back songs to stabs of modulated vocals and trebly beeps (“SAMO,” “Yeah Right”). The relative consistency of these producers and their attention to songs that are at once danceable and insistent provide Big Fish Theory
with its best moments; obviously, when the album only barely skids past the 30-minute mark, they’re often instrumental in demonstrating the ability for Staples to effectively utilize fleeting moments.
Without enough time to waste on names or boasts, Big Fish Theory
accommodates brief time for guests and asserts an authority over their own contributions. Essentially, every moment that Vince isn’t on record is a moment that feels like it needs to prove itself, lest Vince get back on the beat and break your neck for wasting his time. “Yeah Right,” the only song to feature an honest rap verse not from Staples, makes brilliant use of a self-effacing and top notch Kendrick Lamar rap, where, among others, he admits he can sometimes be, ‘only for conversation
,’ before knocking the song on its ass by just as quickly claiming the zeitgeist. Staples isn’t concerned, however; he gets his own words in when he casts doubt over every other rapper’s house, car, girl, and income. More importantly, though, Kendrick and Vince’s verses feel interdependent, necessary for the high impact wallop of Flume and SOPHIE’s sparing and intense beat. Compare that to “Love Can Be…,” where Ray-J and Damon Albarn are necessary ingredients to the smooth-tongued melody, or “Homage” and “SAMO,” where Rick Ross and A$AP Rocky’s contributions are in-name or for-hook only, and you get the sense that Vince isn’t making music for critics, or for sales, or for anyone else other than himself. He is precise with his intent, otherwise he wouldn’t have had Ty Dolla $ign to contribute a triple entendre (courtesy of Genius) to the bottom-end rattler “Rain Come Down.” Every note, every second, every feature is meaningful, and it serves as a prescriptive method for writing rap albums; nobody cares about the names between the brackets if they don’t take the song further or in a consequential direction. Vince gets that underlying point, and he might have just spearheaded its prevalence as a virtue in the rap mainstay by simply being himself.
It can be difficult to wholly evaluate any piece of pop music too hastily, especially when its commitment to the standards of which critical writing is often most attentive to- narrative, lyricism, context- is close to negligible. Big Fish Theory
is a hip-hop album built around the utility of its sound, never indebted to anything outside of itself and constantly in service of its songs. Though that might make it sound underdeveloped or, rather, undeserving of high praise, it stands to reason that in 36-minutes, Staples never wastes a minute or overplays his hand. Humble, modest, unassuming, and attentive to its runtime and the need to make a better song; in a year where Migos, “Mask Off,” and DAMN.
have dominated the conversation, Big Fish Theory
sticks out as the most consistent and well-versed rap album of the year.