It’s almost the end of June and therefore it’s time for another hip hop album review to be happening on these glorious ARM frequencies. (No don’t worry you shouldn’t have picked up the causal correlation between time and rap criticism in the previous sentence, simply because there is none). Some (who?) may say that this is a rather big deal, given that such an occurrence hasn’t happened too often in the meanderings of this site. In fact, if we’re really in the mood for a trip down memory lane, one could actually count on one hand the instalments scrutinising, discussing, and dissecting a hip hop release: first it was Kanye back in February last year, merely because noblesse oblige, then shortly after it was the irresistible and sexy Anderson .Paak, followed by a little bit of Chance The Rapper for a Summer music preview, finishing last with the mighty Bad Rabbits and their role as raconteurs of an American nightmare.
So, it was in this sort of stream of consciousness that 23-year old, Odd Future-associate Vince Staples’ recent album release came as a perfectly timed blessing. The sophomore LP by Long Beach, CA-based rapper goes by the title of Big Fish Theory and dropped on 23rd June under prominent and influential label Def Jam. The 12-track/36-minute long effort follows the widely critically acclaimed debut album Summertime ’06 (2015) as well as significant anticipation from leading news outlets and the whole scene more in general. I myself had been eyeing the MC for quite some time, although not necessarily out of a musical fandom calling – even though his most successful single off Summertime ’06 “Norf Norf” being an absolute gem – but rather because the dude, a very sharp-straight-edge-off-the-tabloids-vocal man in his early 20s who loves Sprite, seemed like a very interesting person to me. Therefore, when on 18th May lead single “Big Fish” truly grabbed my active attention (although Vince actually released an earlier first single called “BagBak” as back in time as 3rd February, though with no hint of a full album backing the track at the time), I made damn sure I wouldn’t miss the whole LP once out.
I actually wasn’t incredibly fond of the first track I fully devoted my ears to, i.e. “Big Fish”. Whilst I completely understand the song being picked as lead single as well as thematic frame for the whole concept of the album thanks to its forward-leaning catchiness and immediacy, the overall delivery results a bit too repetitive and empty, as if its main driving electronic sound and repetitive lyrics were the lowest common denominator Vince could find to fill that vacuum. A similar feeling is the one I get with reference to “BagBak”, at least as far as the instrumental track goes, nothing much than an simple, experimental base ending up being too hypnotic and unvaried to really assume he gave it a proper thought. Yet the song gains value when the lyrical delivery gets considered too, with aggressive, bold, and political elements all successfully intertwined (“Clap your hands if the police ever profiled / You ain’t gotta worry, don’t be scary ’cause we on now / Ain’t no gentrifying us, we finna buy the whole town / Tell the one percent to suck a dick, because we on now“).
One aspect that’s very interesting about Big Fish Theory, and one that my esteemed Twitter followers have already had the viewing pleasure to obtain, is that this is an album on which the opening track might actually be the best song overall. I find that too often artists tend to “sacrifice” the album opener either with a preface/prelude/intro which normally is too ambient-y anyway and doesn’t really add much to the overall musical frame, or with an annoying and unnecessary skit/oddity (this especially with hip hop/rap albums), really only contributing to boosting the track amount and nothing to the songwriting package. I’m actually a huge fan of openers and if I ever were to release my own music I swear I’d put my best song(s) right at the start of the tracklist, mainly to show myself the listeners what for. To me, this is what Vince Staples has done by placing the brilliant “Crabs in a Bucket” at number one on Big Fish Theory’s tracklist. The song, wonderfully co-produced and heavily influenced by Bon Iver‘s Justin Vernon, is a dark and distorted backtrack with loads of experimental sounds and a pumping, near-to-perfect vocal delivery by Staples, refined and wrapped up by a thin, sensual, and necessary closure by Kilo Kish. The kind of song that immediately reminds me of some of my favourite rap tunes of all time.
Other album highlights include the sweaty and visceral “745”, which in many ways is that what style-related “Big Fish” and “BagBak” should’ve been, as well as the electric and vibey “Party People”, a song that despite its fun title deals in fact with deep self-search and overcoming of struggles (“Move your body if you came here to party / If not then pardon me / How I’m supposed to have a good time / When death and destruction’s all I see?”). The latter tune is also probably the only one that could’ve competed with “Big Fish”‘s radio-friendly character as main single, and in retrospect perhaps an even better choice for it. Last one to save is LP-closer and Ty Dolla $ign-collab “Rain Come Down“, a groovy G-funk cut with explicit leaning to auto-tuned, trappy sounds and the longest track on the whole record with almost 5 minutes of running time.
Unfortunately, the LP carries a number of less fortunate compositions, led by the purposeless skit “Ramona Park is Yankee Stadium” – I mean, come on, for once that an hip hop album is actually limited in its track listing one might as well just focus on the best songs, not least considering the fact that a skit’s main purpose is to let a 19-track album breathe… – and the not-so-dissimilar “Alyssa Interlude”, i.e. an isolated Amy Winehouse voice recording laid hand-in-hand with a sample of “I Wish It Would Rain” by The Temptations. I’m still looking for the whole point of those ones. In fact, I realized I’m not a fan of voicemail-turned-music trend songs at all, as none of the ones recently included in albums e.g. by Kanye West (“Siiiiiiiiilver Surffffeeeeer Intermission” on The Life Of Pablo), Frank Ocean (Blonde’s “Be Yourself” and “Facebook Story [Ft. Sebastian]”), or even Kendrick Lamar (outro on “FEAR.” in his recent effort DAMN.) really made any sense to me. The list of insipid tracks on Big Fish Theory continues with the one-two “Homage” and “Samo” at number eight and nine on the tracklist, where I simply find myself being completely indifferent towards them, mainly because the mood and genre adopted by Vince on those two songs is something that I find being not easily digestible.
Lastly, there’s one song which I’m still not convinced I truly dislike, or in other words, one that might as well end up among the ones I enjoy listening the most. That track is the mighty Kendrick Lamar and Laura Jane Lowther collab “Yeah Right”, and such a feeling stems principally from the realisation that the composition is a nothing else than a combination of parts that for me are hard to get (Vince’s industrial-rapping intro plus outro) and very positive and inspiring moments, such as the Lowther-sung refrain and Lamar’s powerful and delicious verse. If one thinks about it, this could actually sum up most of Vince Staples’ enigmatic and fascinating public character, both as an individual and in his musical persona, further amplified by the obscurity of the album’s title meaning and some of the rapper’s promotional statements, like for instance the genius move about labelling his record’s overall sound as “afro-futurism”, only to then to admit of not knowing what it really means but still enjoying “saying stuff about black people to white people”. How can one not be attracted to someone like this? My kind of artist for sure.
“BIG FISH THEORY”
2017, Def Jam Recordings
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