At a scant 36 minutes, Big Fish Theory (Def Jam) is a relatively quick tour through the creative world of rapper Vince Staples. But what a fascinating, multi-faceted tour it is. The booming bass and fiery electronica synths begin right off the bat with “Crabs in a Bucket,” and carry on strong all the way through the last track, “Rain Come Down.” In between, the album is packed with some of the most impressive rapping and exciting production to be found on any rap release in recent memory.
Vince Staples (real name, no gimmicks) has already amassed quite an impressive resumé over his 24 years, a third of which he has spent cranking out rap music at an astounding rate. A longtime key player of Odd Future, one of the most prominent hip-hop collectives in Staples’ native Los Angeles, the rapper finally broke off from the pack and released his stellar debut, Summertime ‘06, back in 2015.
As much of an impact as that record made in its day, the follow-up is even better. Staples has evidently developed as a rapper, producing a sharper and more lyrically mature record his second time around. Whereas Summertime ‘06 was largely a retrospective account on Staples’ upbringing and adolescent gang activity, Big Fish Theory shifts the scene into the present day — and both the lyrical content and production soar as a result.
Big Fish Theory deftly walks the oh-so-skinny line of making his music thoughtful and club-friendly at once. Check the quasi-title track for a fine case in point: It is easy to imagine a jampacked dancefloor bouncin’ wildly to lines like “I was up late night, ballin’. Countin’ up hundreds by the thousand,” the earworm chorus provided generously by featured rapper Juicy J. The heavy beat provided by producer-DJ duo Christian Rich advance the song’s radio-readiness even further.
Watch: “Big Fish” – Vince Staples
Yet the song is far more lyrically penetrative than most club-bangers ever dare to be: Staples scrutinizes the lifestyles of both celebrities and fans, and laments them both for their constant excesses and heedlessness. He considers how his success in the rap game has influenced him as a person and artist, including the heightened social responsibilities that come with his new star status.
“At the park politickin’ with the kids,” he raps, making a nod to his own involvement with his local community and YMCA program. “Tryna get ‘em on a straight path, got the lanes mad.” Power may corrupt, as rappers beyond count have chronicled in their lyrics. But in Staples’ case, it can also be used for good.
Similar themes are further explored on “Yeah Right,” a duet with Kendrick Lamar. In some sense a continuation of Lamar’s “Humble,” the two L.A. powerhouses advise their peers to behave more modestly and mocks some of the stereotypical boasts from within the hip-hop industry– “Is you well paid? Are your shows packed? If your song played, would they know that?” Lamar’s signature nimbleness never falters, and the track emerges as the strongest duet on a record that also features valuable contributions from Ty Dolla $ign, A$AP Rocky, and other notables.
Listen: “Yeah Right” – Vince Staples
As evidenced by song names like “Crabs in a Bucket”– and, indeed, the album’s title itself– this album makes plenty of narrative allusion to the various forms of imprisonment Staples and his fellow rappers, black citizens and celebrities all have to deal with. “Ramona Park is Yankee Stadium,” makes reference to a local Crips den, and demonstrates that Staples in his peers are still largely trapped in the gang culture he experienced growing up– even if that theme is not as prevalent on this album as it was on Summertime ‘06. Clearly plenty of thoughts have filled Vince Staples’ mind as his status as a star rapper has grown, and he has a fantastic gift to turn those inner musings into compelling music.
All of this thematic material alone would make for an impactful record. Yet the impression made by Big Fish Theory is amplified by the outstanding production that so consistently surfaces throughout the record’s time span. An international cast of talented beat-makers– Australia’s Flume, Nigeria’s Christian Rich, Scotland’s SOPHIE, and a considerable range of up-and-comers from across the United States– all turn in terrific works on their trips to the plate. Most of it would fall into the genre of avant-garde electronica, but no two of the twelve beats here sound identical– and not one of them is less than dazzling.
“We makin’ future music… this is my Afrofuturism,” Staples explains. It is doubtful anyone will care to argue. Plenty of time remains in 2017, but it is likely that Big Fish Theory will still be standing tall in five months’ time as one of rap music’s most remarkable and futuristic achievements of the year. Vince Staples is an MC the modern-day rap scene should be quite thankful to have around.
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