Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Vince Staples - Big Fish Theory Review

There's an undercut reason why Vince Staples is rising in prominence; he's a voice embedded in West Coast Hip-Hop, but one not afraid to move past its numerous roadblocks. You'd think with a background in gang wars between the Bloods and Crips of Long Beach that Staples would be coerced into maintaining that marketable edge, one that relies heavily on G-Funk and pontificating the turbulence of street life. However, Staples has a global mission, and it's one at the heart of Big Fish Theory. Like a fish out of water seeking refuge in a bowl that's vastly undersized, Staples sees himself as an outcast in the same streets he represents. It's with this idea in mind, and the fact that he's not another notch in West Coast's long withholding belt, that causes millions to turn a curious eye towards his masterfully detailed, precariously twisted, and incisively shrewd rapping style. With Big Fish Theory though, that's only one half of the equation. Production guidelines that veer off the precipice, taking any expectations with them, ravage the album. G-Funk provides the bedrock, but House, Techno, and Hyphy personify the surface. All genres built on immensely danceable beats, something that's just as abundant on Big Fish Theory as Staples' critical commentary.

In 2015 when Summertime '06 dropped, an album I only hyped for a few months after hearing Hell Can Wait which left me otherwise unimpressed, the potential of Vince Staples hadn't yet dawned on me. And even though I gave that record a glowing review, and would defend its place amongst 2010's best, it wasn't until 'Señorita's' music video released that Staples' genius showed. A white family views the carnage of inner city life through the safe confines of their bulletproof window, gleefully overlooking the inhabitants as if they were animals at a zoo. The resulting picture drew a fantastically grim portrait of how Americans view black-on-black crime. Staples' awareness of this phenomena is something he doesn't handle lightly, and in that very song would declare everyone around him nothing more than "crabs in a bucket." For those familiar with Big Fish Theory, that's the title of the opening track, and one mighty metaphor for the prospects of survival in the streets. Much like how Staples brandished his ego whilst abroad a sinking ship in the video for 'Big Fish,' the crabs' panicked climb atop one another makes it so none of them outlast their doomed fate. In a way, Staples has, but the problems of yore still tether him back.

It's a theory I'm sure he's had to answer internally at some point in time. That being, whether or not distancing himself from that lifestyle, something he's often criticized, would be an ideal solution despite losing homeland credibility. With Big Fish Theory, Staples tries to accommodate both, something he merely tiptoed around on the uncomfortable and largely forgettable Prima Donna. While the potency of his songwriting stays at home, centered on immature relationships, materialistic showboating, and ego-centric party anthems, the production travels to a foreign place where harsh slams and rigid stabs rule the land. His grounded intellect bares resemblance to Kendrick Lamar, the esoteric Hip House certainly a byproduct of Danny Brown's twisted cranium. In fact, Big Fish Theory sounds like Old's side B had it taken place after the insanity of Atrocity Exhibition revealed itself. Surprisingly, production arises from a handful of names, most notably Zack Sekoff who appears on five tracks. The sleek percussion on tracks like 'Homage' and 'Party People' frantically teeters around Footwork till sweat drips down to the shoes, while menacing turns through bass-heavy Trap houses fashions an ominous vibe on standouts 'Yeah Right' and 'Samo.'

Each track, apart from the gloomy 'Alyssa Interlude' and the hopeful 'Rain Come Down,' which both not coincidentally share the imagery of rain streaming down a windowsill, is jam-packed with delirious production that solidly answers whether experimental bangers, a la Lamar's 'DNA,' Brown's 'Ain't It Funny,' or much of Death Grips' discography, belong in Hip-Hop's canonical future. 'Yeah Right' promptly implants itself amongst those aforementioned cuts, with scratching steel drums and an impenetrably earth-rattling low-end. Apart from the Kučka bridge, which is clearly Flume's creation, the standout track has little more in the wake of Staples and Lamar's dominance. If a drum or a bass isn't echoing through, silence seeps through the cracks. The puncturing hi-hats and constant glitches of 'Love Can Be' goes further in explaining the sheer simplicity of Big Fish Theory's aesthetic, one that's commandeered by Dance music's hypnotic efficiency. Interestingly enough, Damon Albarn's featured here, bringing the odd pairing full circle, when 'Ascension' kickstarted this dance party on Humanz. Even Kilo Kish, Staples' favorite collaborator, has a standout rapping verse on 'Love Can Be,' something she also showcased on the Gorillaz's 'Out Of Body.'

While there's very little in the way of negatives when it comes to the beat-making, Big Fish Theory's content can be lackluster at times. This, quite shocking after the conceptual Summertime '06. Much like Prima Donna, Staples' direct association with the Gangsta Rap scene tends to fall more towards the serious side than the critical one. On 'Big Fish,' the album's worst track, the expendable braggadocio is imperceivable to those he disparages, resulting in an effort that's more YG than Staples. And while 'Party People's' hook sounds unlike anything I've heard before, the bash-time fodder clashes significantly with Staples' personality, especially as it stands next to the ferociously political 'Bagbak,' a faux lead single that in and of itself felt more apt after Donald Trump's inauguration than it does now. That's Big Fish Theory's biggest blunder; the fact that Staples doesn't have an overarching theme on tap, rather a collection of mini ideas rarely fleshed out. Take 'Crabs In A Bucket,' an iconic phrase easily capable of representing an entire album, reduced to the confines of a single song. Regardless, the frenzied aura surrounding Big Fish Theory's expeditious 36 minutes (a decision made after the laborious second disc of Summertime '06) swiftly implants itself amongst the totem pole of Rap's promising future. Hopefully one where the crabs can work together and leave the Gangsta Rap tropes behind.

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