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Vince Staples – Big Fish Theory

24 Sep

 

On the face of it, Big Fish Theory sounds great. On his second full-length album, Long Beach-native Vince Staples layers his poised and confident flow over reworked techno-house beats, and interludes these gems with often bizarre but invariably interesting spoken-word segments and collaborations. There are enough references to oceans and marine life to make the album title seem reasonable, and you’re left with a tidy hip-hop album, with a bow on top.

But dig a little deeper, and Big Fish Theory shines blackly with grimness and desolation. After the break-out success of his debut Summertime ’06 (2015) and his follow-up EP Prima Donna (2016), Staples has gotten really famous really quickly. With a rough past in the mean streets of North Long Beach, this is exactly what Staples should want – enough money, fame and women to catapult him into a different life. But the new life didn’t quite cut it. Staples is left with aching loneliness, and is often met with money-grubbing groupies and fair-weather friends when he tries to reach out for help. So he works on his music, harder and more focused, to exorcise his demons, all the while knowing that the “goal” he’s set himself won’t bring him happiness in the end.

It is this ominous pendulum of emotions that drives the entire album.

“Alyssa’s Interlude” sets the tone for the darker side of things, with a snippet of Amy Winehouse talking about her self-destructive nature being a major source of material for her music. On “Party People”, Vince shows his own streak of self-destruction – his fame pushes him into the spotlight, where he can’t hide his suicidal thoughts (“Please don’t look at me in my face, everybody might see my pain”). The fruit of his success threatens to undo him and, as Vince is finding out the hard way, money doesn’t fix everything anyway (“Couple problems my cash can’t help, human issues too strong for tissues”).

But it’s not just self-sabotage pushing him to the edge. On “745”, Vince is sitting in a swanky car with a beautiful woman – what he’s wanted all his life – but the dream cracks from the inside. His lady friend heads straight to the oyster bar, without regard to poor Vince who’s still out parking the car. “This thing called love’s hard for me,” he confesses, “This thing called love is a God to me.” Pity that he seems so far from it.

But the grim moods don’t last forever. Vince seems to pull himself out of depression by vowing to stay away from demons, within and without. Album opener “Crabs in a Bucket” uses house beats over an Azalea Banks-like off-kilter flow, to draw a mental image of Vince struggling to make it out of the “bucket” of his old neighborhood. (The song also marks the first appearance of Kilo Kish, who often adds a velvety, ethereal gloss over Vince’s hard-to-swallow bullets of truth throughout the album.)

“Crabs” is followed by the club-ready beats of the first single, “Big Fish” – the part where the intro melds into Vince’s almost taunt-like drawl still gives us chills after half a hundred listens. It’s fair to say that Vince doesn’t fit the mold of the typical hip-hop star – he’s a teetotaler and has never done drugs. We also find out from “Big Fish” that he’s really into saving his cash, wielding his bank balance as a protective float from his past misfortunes. “I was up late night ballin’, counting up hundreds by the thousands,” he boasts repeatedly, and it’s not tough to believe him when he says he’s taken the smart route out of his Ramona Park childhood. “Homage” gives us the same message, relayed over neat Gorillaz-style megaphone vocals – no doubt a nod to his recent collaborator Damon Albarn.

Beyond the pendulum between his self-destructive introspection and his drive to succeed, Big Fish Theory displays another overarching theme: Vince’s cynicism with the hip-hop game. He has repeatedly stated on interviews that he considers rapping to be his job, not a side hobby (“Last time I checked, my job was to make songs. All the other stuff is extra,” he stated bluntly in a recent Vulture interview). Over sludgy beats and tinny drums on “Yeah Right”, Vince sardonically questions the order of importance for many of today’s hip-hop stars. “Is your house big?”, “Is your girl fine?”, and almost as an after-thought, “If your song played, would they know that?” And of course, we would be remiss to not mention that the song also features a stand-out verse dropped by rap’s current king, Kendrick Lamar.

All in all, Big Fish Theory works on two levels. It is a great album to hear from start to finish even if you aren’t paying attention to the words; if you are paying attention, that’s a whole different level.

Best tracks: “Big Fish”, “Yeah Right”, “745”

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