May 1, 2018

Reader Review: Vince Staples - Big Fish Theory (June 23, 2017)




(Hey, how about that, it's the first Reader Review of 2018. Only took me five months. God, I suck. Today I’m filling this space with d. money’s thoughts on the second full-length album from Vince Staples, 2017’s Big Fish Theory. I know some of you two really wanted to discuss the man, so leave your thoughts and stuff in the comments below.)

Vince Jamal Staples (whose real name is Vince Jamal Staples) is a rapper from Long Beach, California, a city where I’m reliably informed that the skinny carry strong heat. A former gang member, Vince first came onto the scene through his friends at Odd Future, Inc. (incidentally, remember those guys? Although Tyler’s clearly still riding the wave of critical attention, is the collective as a whole still a recognized entity now they’re all, frankly, grown up?), laying down what I believe was his first recorded verse on “Epar”, a morally bankrupt and musically asinine track from Earl Sweatshirt’s 2010 mixtape, EARL. Despite Earl (and, one would hope, Vince) denouncing the song (with Earl even going so far as to say in a 2013 interview, “I hope I lose you as a fan if you only fuck with me because I rapped about raping girls when I was 15”, an attitude that I would like to believe is prevalent amongst the majority of OF’s members), I assume someone liked it and saw potential, as Vince was able to parlay this performance into additional guest spots on various Odd Future songs, eventually culminating with his debut mixtape, Shyne Coldchain Vol. 1, in late 2011.

This writer first heard Vince Staples on Earl’s 2013 debut full-length Doris, where Vince walked away with the album thanks to a stellar guest verse on the single “Hive”, which immediately made me sit up and pay attention to him, but not enough to bother looking up his past work. Oh no, that’d be far too strenuous for my attention span. Spurred by his excellent and concise 2014 EP Hell Can Wait, I was hopeful for his major label (kiddo’s signed to Def Jam, yo…that still means something, right?) debut album: Summertime ’06, an ambitious double album released in 2015 which was crafted to put the self-proclaimed CNB (Coldest Ninja Breathing, obviously) on the map. It turns out that, even though it was entertaining for a modern West Coast gangster rap record, Summertime ‘06 was heinously overstuffed: Vince was clearly better as a rapper than as an overall artist, as the album’s sequencing and length (it was stretched out across two discs) seemed amateurish at best, and painfully thoughtless at worst.

Looking past the rap game, Crippy Minaj’s stock in popular culture has risen stratospherically since his breakout role, carving out somewhat of a cult following for his often brutally honest opinions and assessments (his recent denouncement of R. Kelly comes to mind, and honestly, good for him). His off-mic ebullient, and often hilarious, personality has helped him grow as an entertainer, scoring him a deal with Sprite in 2015 (now that’s gangsta!). Not bad for a guy whose first recorded verse contained the couplet, “She's kicking and screaming, begging for me to fucking stop it / Look, you know it's not rape if you like it, bitch.” Ouch.

ANYWAY. Fast forward to the present day. As I have a dangerous affliction to buying CDs, I picked up Big Fish Theory on its release date without hesitation, listened to it a few times, and then promptly cast it aside. This is no fault of the CD: shinier objects came into view, that’s all. The project debuted at number sixteen on the Billboard 200 chart: it was critically acclaimed and ended up on many year-end lists. I’m not sure how the masses felt about the album, however, as it represents somewhat of a departure for Vince Staples: the more conventional West Coast trappy-bangers (see: Summertime '06’s “Senorita”) are cast aside in favor of a more experimental, avant-garde sound, with producers as varied as Gorillaz’ Damon Albarn, Christian Rich, and Flume behind the boards, whilst Academy Award-winner Juicy J and Pulitzer Prize-winner Kendrick Lamar were recruited to bring that ceremonially-recognized heat with them behind the mic.

I’m returning to Big Fish Theory in a late bid to justify its purchase. Incidentally, even if this album does prove to be the next Illmatic (SPOILER ALERT: it doesn’t), I’m still pissed that Vince took notes from Kanye West for the CD packaging, which is simply a blank jewel case with a disc inside. Goddamnit, Vince, some people like to display their shit, man. This is just lazy. Little things go a long way for those who go out their way to buy physical media.

For context, I think it’s worth mentioning that whilst I pledge allegiance to hip hop first, I’m also an avid techno and house fan, something that will prove pretty relevant as we delve into the album. Also, you streamers out there may as well listen to Big Fish Theory as you read the review: it’s pretty frickin’ short, like, EP short.  So, without further ado, to quote Slick Rick, “Hereeeeeeee we go!”

1. CRABS IN A BUCKET (FEAT. KILO KISH)
The project kicks off with a moody, atmospheric beat courtesy of Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon and Zack Sekoff as our host lays out his statement of intent, his two concise and effective verses setting up the theme of Vince Staples’ The Shape of Water efficiently. This is then followed by some pleasant-enough vocals by Kilo Kish before the track just abruptly ends. A good track to introduce the project, but one I’m not convinced I would necessarily listen to either outside of the album or if it was placed elsewhere in the tracklisting: it works in context, but isn’t enough on its own to ever bother seeking out. 

2. BIG FISH (FEAT. JUICY J)
Great way to properly kick off Big Fish Theory. Christian Rich’s club banger of a beat is bouncy and squelches along nicely to Vince’s bubblegum flow. His flow is particularly impressive during his second verse, expertly elastic over what I feel to be pretty akin to a futuristic type of G-Funk, even if the bars themselves aren’t nearly as sticky. The appearance of Juicy J further adds to the song’s commercial appeal, his catchy hook complementing Vince’s ice-cold flow perfectly. All in all, things are looking up. On an unrelated aside, out of everyone in Three 6 Mafia, why is Juiceman is still getting featured on major label projects in 2017 while my man DJ Paul gets no love anymore? Shit, even Gangsta Boo was on Run The Jewels 2!

3. ALYSSA INTERLUDE
An interlude? Three songs in? Does Vince think we’d already be out of breath six and a half minutes into Big Fish Theory? This entirely disposable segment features a sample from an old interview from the late Amy Winehouse (so who knows why it’s called “Alyssa Interlude”), followed by some pretty terrible karaoke from Vincenzo over lightly white-noise ambient beat (one that, admittedly, is pretty nice. This track completely kills the momentum generated by “Big Fish”. Le sigh.

4. LOVE CAN BE… (FEAT. KILO KISH, DAMON ALBARN, & RAY J)
I really like the beat here. Vince, on the other hand, sounds like an afterthought on his own song: his first verse barely registers at all, and while his second tries to inject some more energy, it’s too late for a rescue. The hook is also weak, but the chameleon-like beat keeps the song engaging. Total marmite of a song, one where you can’t help but feel that perhaps it wasn’t the best decision to give Vince total creative control over the project, especially as the first four songs seem to coincide with four different moods, which gives credence to the Inside Out theory that we’re actually controlled by our different emotions. Staples certainly sounds like four separate people have chosen the various paths Deep Blue Sea has travelled so far.

5. 745
Another shift in mood, as Vince borderline croon-raps over a slow, spacey instrumental. I found this song to be too slow to properly follow “Love Can Be…”, and Vince’s failure to make the instrumental his own hardly makes it a compelling-enough song to return to. Hip hop Nyquil.

6. RAMONA PARK IS YANKEE STADIUM (FEAT. KILO KISH)
Yeah… there’s nothing to really talk about here on this fifty-five-second bullshit intermission. So instead, I feel it’s appropriate to question why Vince Staples even bothered to include two interludes on an album that runs for barely longer than half an hour. Perhaps he took the wrong lessons away from the criticism of Summertime ’06.

7. YEAH RIGHT (FEAT. KENDRICK LAMAR & KUCKA)
BOY YEAH RIGHT YEAH RIGHT YEAH RIGHT! This is what I’m talking about! Finally, the Stapler finds a Flume beat that slaps and meshes nicely with his aggressive raps. After an unnecessary and unwelcome brief beat switch featuring some annoying disjointed female vocals, an uncredited Kung Fu Kenny shows up for a hot guest verse, and while he doesn’t interact with Vince whatsoever, his high-pitched voice complements the song perfectly. Yeah right, alright. Easily one of my favorite songs on the project, and one of my favorite “turn up” songs of 2017.

8. HOMAGE (FEAT. KILO KISH)
An annoying, aquatic beat finds Vince waxing about his lack of respect within the music industry (“Where the fuck is my Grammy?”) contrasting with his actual success in life, as both a rapper and, surprisingly, a filmmaker. Given he’s only made one film to date (Primadonna, because that Sprite shit doesn’t count), this claim is premature, but he’s certainly right about commanding more respect as a rapper: for most of Big Fish Theory, you can’t help but wonder how many other major label artists would take this many creative risks. For that, at least, I applaud Vince, if not necessarily the music itself.

9. SAMO (FEAT. A$AP ROCKY & KILO KISH)
The menacing beat feels to me like a natural progression of Summertime ‘06’s sound, which bumps heads slightly against the rest of Big Fish Theory, as the transition from borderline EDM to dark, murky hood shit doesn’t flow well at all. However, I’ve always enjoyed Vince best over instrumentals such as this, so his performance here doesn’t disappoint on what is an otherwise forgettable affair. I feel like a guest verse by someone like ScHoolboy Q would’ve elevated the shit out of this (the pair’s chemistry has always been palatable, Blank Face LP’s “Ride Out” being the zenith of this Crip marriage), but Vince’s seeming reluctance to include guest features on the album, whilst admirable in 2017, seems to be working against him.

10. PARTY PEOPLE
One of those tracks where you forget everything about it the second it stops playing, if not during.  Vince sounds bored at this party, as if he’s grown exhausted by the energetic (if repetitive) trance-type beat and has already moved on to seeing what Blu-Rays the host has on their shelf or parsing through one of those 1001 Things… books people always seem to own as an excuse to get away from the rest of the fun. I didn’t care for this one at all, although I have to admire Vince for his anti-drug message on the song, as it straddles the line between positive and preachy perfectly, whilst proving Vince has far more to say than just his gangsta boasts-n-bullshit.

11. BAGBAK (FEAT. KEN ROGERS)
The first single of Big Fish Theory, the beat brings a militant sense of immediacy that’s finally matched by the bars. Lyrically, Vince is as impressive here as he is on anywhere else on the album, essentially throwing down his political manifesto, not to mention “tell(ing) the President to suck a dick because we on now”. Concise and to the point, I suppose. (Also, I agree.) Clearly the best choice for lead single, as Vince sounds alert and commanding, something that, sadly, we haven’t seen enough of on this album.

12. RAIN COME DOWN (FEAT. TY DOLLA $IGN)
I just didn’t care for this one bit. Ty Dolla $ign’s vocals, the dark, trappy beat, and Vince’s bored-sounding flow do not feel like they belong together on the same song. To make matters worse, Vince doesn’t deliver nearly enough energy to ride the beat with any presence, which, frustratingly, has been one of the most consistent features of Big Fish Theory. And with that, we’re done. A flawed and frustrating ending to a (mostly) flawed and frustrating album.

FINAL THOUGHTS: I truly feel that The Life Aquatic With Vince Staples deserves to be heard by the heads whose tastes skew more experimental at least once: for a “mainstream” hip hop album (by which I mean “for a major label release”), it’s a very adventurous dive towards more EDM and house sounds that typically don’t mesh neatly with more conventional hip hop. Vince must be applauded for fully embracing his artistic vision rather than compromising for a more conventional sound (and healthier paychecks). The difficulty with this approach, however, is that the album ends up far too inconsistent and polarizing to fully recommend as a piece of work, especially as Vince himself feels like an afterthought much of the time, hopelessly drowned out by some of the bigger EDM-styled beats. The lack of guest spots is notable in an era where it’s trendier to have more songs with guests than without, but without an occasional escape from Staples’ largely monotonous flow, Big Fish Theory can feel a bit insular. Subsequently, Kendrick Lamar’s verse is probably the most memorable on the album: it isn’t Kung Fu Kenny at his syrup sandwich-chomping sharpest, but it’s still a breath of fresh air on a project where Vince’s voice blends into the largely forgettable soundscapes far too often. It’s clear that Vince still has work to do when it comes to piecing together a cohesive and compelling body of work, as well as finding the right beats that don’t swallow him in the fiery pits of house music hell. Better luck next time, kiddo.

BUY OR BURN? Unfortunately, in today’s music climate, a half-hour long album made up of twelve tracks, especially when two of which are interludes and only 4 of the songs really connect, cannot be recommended for purchase at full retail price. (I feel this would’ve been a lot more successful if marketed as an EP teasing for a future bigger project.) I wholeheartedly recommend you track this down in some form, however, if only to find out for yourself what the Staples bandwagon is really about, even if this is his most frustrating and inconsistent listen to date. However, if you do enjoy this album please buy it, as Vince is truly one of the most interesting and important young artists in the game right now, and I have nothing but encouragement for him to keep pursuing such alternative beats to really hone his style. And also, it’s proper cool to support cool artists, trust.

BEST TRACKS: “Big Fish”; “Yeah Right”; “BagBak”

-d. money

(Questions? Comments? Complaints? Stop talking aloud to your computer or phone screen and leave a comment or twenty.)




12 comments:

  1. AnonymousMay 01, 2018

    Vince may sink into the beats a bit on this album, but afaic he never actually misses at all when it comes to spitting a verse. Also can't really agree with any of teh other knocks against this album. Guess some people (especially older hip hop heads) can't recognize good and interesting songs if it hit them in the back of the head. 8/10 record.

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    1. Curious as to how you discerned the age of the author, as he never mentions it and I didn't write this review. (I also don't know how old he is, as that information is irrelevant for a subjective critique.)

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    2. AnonymousMay 01, 2018

      I guess some people can't recognise good and interesting songs after all. Despite the fact that numerous times throughout the album I did praise Vince for being an interesting artist in the direction he was going with for some of the beats. As for good, well you've got me there. *Shrugs*. If it helps anyone sleep better at night, this reviewer is only 20 (but my mind is old, and, occasionally, when things get for real my warm heart turns cold). This is my first review though, so thanks for reading!

      d. money

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  2. AnonymousMay 01, 2018

    I love Vince's personality and he's a very good rapper, but I agree with this. I liked it a lot upon initial listens, but it didn't have much replay value.

    My only real disagreement is that I really enjoy Rain Come Down. I have it in my "night driving" playlist, and in that setting I think it's perfect.

    But yeah, at least half of this is pretty forgettable. I liked the experimentation, but wish he'd return to a bit more straightforward, hard-hitting beats. Big Fish is exactly the sound I want from him: that song is FIRE

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  3. Not too keen on Staples, to be honest.

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  4. This blog has become anemic.

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    1. Cool story. Thanks for reading!

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  5. AnonymousMay 05, 2018

    Better than the last 2 reviews

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  6. So that Royce Da 5’9” latest album review by Max will be uploaded to the site tomorrow or...

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    1. Doubtful, given my past tendency to take my time with his catalog and the fact that I'm still an album behind.

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  7. AnonymousMay 06, 2018

    have you listened to Book of Ryan yet, Max?

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    1. Aside from a couple is trscks, not yet.

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