Album Review : Vince Staples - Big Fish Theory (2017)
Vince Staples is the most interesting man working in hip-hop right now. He's a young Californian rapper with an infectious flow, burning charisma and a sharp, critical eye for the business he's in. None of these traits are exactly new in the rap game, but they've never quite coexisted in the same person before. And the best part is that Staples isn't THAT interested in living the dream and becoming a public figure. On his new album Big Fish Theory, he continues his journey down the yellow brick road of the music industry and makes peace with his own devouring self-awareness. And it's pretty great. Self-aware nerds like me will appreciate the several eloquent bangers and the observant nature of this new record.
There is a pretty strong aquatic theme running through Big Fish Theory. The album opens with two memorable bangers Crabs in a Bucket and Big Fish, which tackle this overarching allegory. Crabs in a Bucket's is minimalist, bass-driven and leaves the floor to Vince Staples' tremendous storytelling skills. The song is about jealousy, trying to step on others to elevate yourself and focusing on the vapid things. Contrary to the kind of song that usually discusses these themes in hip-hop, Crabs in a Bucket gives you the uneasy feeling that Staples is speaking directly to you. It's not one of these humble-brag songs where the performer gloriously fends off haters and flashes his accomplishment, it's an attempt at dialog. Vince Staples has a notoriously difficult relationship with internet people and that song is directed to them as much as it is directed to whoever else songs about haters are usually directed to.
The most conventionally enjoyable song on the record is Big Fish, which reflects the driving idea behind the record: that he's become a big fish in a small tank *. Success changed his life, yet brought another set of problems, shrewdly illustrated in the video by sharks surrounding his boat. Vince and Juicy J rap on an old school West Coast hip-hop song. Unlike Crabs in a Bucket, it's kind of a karma-free song to enjoy and might turn out to be his most iconic banger next to Norf Norf. The third song on Big Fish Theory Alyssa Interlude has divided critics. Count me in as one of them who enjoyed it, though. It's quite experimental and experiments with spacey, electronic, almost trip-hop atmospheres (something he does on more than one song) and I thought the contrast between the Amy Winehouse sample at the beginning and the verse where he pines for a more simple, "realer" lifestyle really worked on an emotional level.
There are a lot of "confessional" songs on Big Fish Theory, which brings me to this idea that Vince Staples is really assessing himself as a self-aware rapper here. Once again, not quite a new idea in the music landscape, but self-aware music has always been a retrospective art? What makes Vince Staples special is he is reflecting on his personal journey as it happens. He constantly breaks through the fourth wall of rap. A song like 745 examines his cynicism towards the eventuality of finding a genuine loving relationship as a celebrity. The strange, industrial and oddly intoxicating Party People is about his love/hate relationship with his own lifestyle as someone who doesn't drink or take drugs. Vince Staples' distant, almost emotionless delivery has never been so impactful as it is on this track.
Big Fish Theory is a very cohesive record albeit quite different from its predecessors Prima Donna and the now iconic Summertime '06. Vince Staples is steering himself away from conventional rap. Singles Big Fish, SAMO and Bagbak (which are all awesome) would be the only two songs on this record I would qualify as such. The influence of Kanye West is palpable on Big Fish Theory, which is great because it really strenghtens and furthers the legacy of a great artist often judged for things other than his music. One of Kanye's last singles Fade echoed in my mind when I listened to the album closer Rain Comes Down. The obsessive bass and the haunting, repetitive chorus performed by Ty Dolla $ign was, I thought, a really cool wink to Yeezy.
Was Big Fish Theory good? Hell yeah, it was great. Crabs in a Bucket, Big Fish, Yeah Right, SAMO, Party People and Bagbak are all destined to become markee Vince Staples songs, yet only reflect one side of this emotionally complex record. If Drake made it cool to rap about your feelings, Vince Staples shows it's possible to do it intelligently, without being fucking corny. Big Fish Theory is evolutionary hip-hop that seeks to break free of the close-minded perception people have of the genre without denying where it comes from, which is not unlike what a certain Kendrick Lamar is doing. Both men are fighting different fights, Vince's struggle is much more existential than Kendrick's. Both are great, but if anything Big Fish Theory cemented that Vince Staples is my guy. It's a terrific, challenging and furiously catchy record.
* Which I believe is a metaphor for being a black man in the entertainment industry. Vince wants to move beyond the conventional restrictions attached to that.