No Small Fry.
It’s a widely-believed (and widely-debunked) theory that fish only have a memory lasting three seconds; that they can only recall an event as it’s actually happening and have no recollection of it afterwards. This is of course untrue as it’s actually believed fish have a memory of up to five months long, but the sentiment of the aquatic creatures having such a short memory span may stem from our innate pity for them – after we as a civilisation confined them in small tanks, creating this lie to make us feel less responsible for dooming them to a life lived in a small glass bowl, forever peering out into the world with that same dumb expression on their faces. Perhaps this was then the inspiration behind Vince Staples sophomore LP ‘Big Fish Theory‘, the idea of concentrated minority neighbourhoods being contained in a way that sees their inhabitants unable to grow to the their full potential and leave the ‘glass bowl’ that is their home. And there are few places more like this that Staples’ hometown – Long Beach, California.
It’d be dishonest to call Vince a shallow rapper, what with his darker take on the genre that offers blood-soaked parables laced in street crime – but it would be just as dishonest to call him a conscious rapper, carrying just as many catchy hooks to boot. What Vince has offered since his debut in 2011 is a strange limbo that walks the fine line in between your typical trap hits and experimental beats, with his last effort ‘Prima Donna‘ having him lean more to the side of the former. As if not to upset said balance, the young Californian rapper seems have to swayed very much in the opposite direction, eyeing up a much more developmental style for his second studio album.
Working with the likes of GTA, Sophie and Flume, it’s clear that Vince wanted to mix a more EDM-infused style into his boiling pot of creation. The intoxicating vocals of Kilo Kish matched with the kaleidoscopic dance beat of ‘Love Can Be…’ is a formula that definitely should not work for what many would consider a ‘gangster’ rapper, but Vince slides onto its groove without changing up his own flow too much with lines such a “Never let a bitch Lil’ Bow Wow me” retaining his cold sense of humour draped in a blank stare.
Though this is very much the main body of the iceberg that sunk the titanic, it would be hard for those drowning in bass to deny the clever weaving of hip hop tropes along with EDM ones, resulting in an enticing experience that offers a different side to the coin. Tracks such as ‘Crabs In a Bucket’ and ‘Party People’ sound like those you’d find in the basement room of any club, what with their heavy-handed use of drum loops and short, snappy synth bass clips that’ll have your head both nodding and shaking in confusion. The surprise comes when you dig deeper into the records writing and the personal commentary Vince displays such as on the previously-mentioned ‘Party People’: “Askin’ when I’m gon’ blast myself / Couple problems my cash can’t help / Human issues, too strong for tissues / False bravado all masked by wealth”. In addition, the track ‘Big Fish’ offers Vince’s thoughts on the theory itself as it manifests in human form: “Swimming upstream while I’m tryna keep my bread / From the sharks make me wanna put the hammer to my head”, lacing the idea of the glass bowl with the inescapable traits of the streets.
The trip to Vince’s wonderland grows ever weirder and so evermore interesting when he incorporates his signature West Coast styling into the mix with the song ‘745’, a G funk inspired cut carried by rolling hi hats. Despite its weaker lyrical content (“I’ll pick you up at 7:45 in my 745 etc.”) Vince once again shows off his keen ear for picking more unproved mixtures with his production, a feat he carries over into the album’s standout track ‘Yeah Right’. The outrageous amount of ear-splitting bass perfectly driving the chanted hook “Boy yeah right, yeah right, yeah right” and Vince’s heightened antagonistic nature is a match made in heaven for fans of big beats. Loud, grimy and yet captivating, it’s one of Vince’s proudest moments – complete with a surprise Kendrick Lamar verse.
Of course as with the 24 year-old’s last EP, it at times gets a little too big for its boots (disclaimer: that was a phrase before Stormzy ruined it) and can go a little over the top with its production at times. The coupling of ‘Homage’ and ‘Samo’ make for the albums lull, and somehow make face-slapping bass and drum knocks sound boring, not helped by their repetitively dull hooks: “These niggas won’t hold me back” and “Watch me do the same old thing” don’t exactly make for either intricate cultural insights or strong story-telling.
Whatever your opinion of ‘Big Fish Theory’ is, you can’t deny the twisted creativity of Vince and his beat-making entourage. To successfully infuse two different genres consistently over 12 tracks is a rare accomplishment, and it’s not something the Long Beach rapper achieves here – but dammit he gives it a go. A few annoying hooks and instrumentals that ask a little too much of its host aside, Vince Staples’ second full LP embodies a lot of ambition, not just in its pursuit of commercial success but also in the way it offers an alternative to the very rigid nature of most of hip hop’s sub-genres. Combing techno, garage and house – then coating it in a gangsta rap finish, ‘Big Fish Theory’ is the most forward-thinking record of the year so far. Not bad for something with a 3 second memory.