Music

Vince Staples: The Big Fish Theory

Vince Staples returns with his troubled and furious second album, The Big Fish Theory.


Vince Staples

The Big Fish Theory

Label: Blacksmith / ARTium / Def Jam
Release Date: 2017-06-23
Amazon
iTunes

Vince Staples is a preternaturally gifted rapper that's been making major waves since his chilling breakout verse on Earl Sweatshirt's "Hive" in 2013. Playing foil to Earl's poetic introspection, Staples hit the song with cold, detached observation and threats that felt sociopathic as opposed to stunting. The schism between Staples and Earl evidenced on that song isn't too different from Staples and the rap world at large. Where much of rap now is heavily influenced by trap, as well as absurd juxtaposition and alliterative runs pioneered by Ghostface Killah and Cam'ron, Staples occupies a unique space that diminishes affectation for clarity in delivery.

That clarity is also evidenced in the clean conceptual territory that his last two releases have followed -- his debut album Summertime '06 is a bildungsroman about losing his sense of youth and last year's Prima Donna EP, which was inspired by Amy Winehouse, the meditates on a rapper that becomes successful and commits suicide. While his music may at first seem workmanlike, Staples's attention to detail and big-tent thinking reveal it to be not only ambitious but experimental, unafraid of pushing lyrical and sonic buttons that actively challenge the listener.

Staples's latest, The Big Fish Theory, feels like something a blend of his previous two releases: it's the rumination of a young, successful rapper amid the maelstrom of fame. The album is relatively short, running only 36 minutes across 12 tracks. The brevity is evidenced in Staples's verses, which themselves number about only two per song. At times, Staples runs through familiar lyrical territory -- emotional disconnection with a lover or boasts about his lyric prowess and achievements -- but he's able to enrich them through his urgent delivery that imbues each song with austerity and intensity.

There is little light to this album -- the hedonistic impulses imply emptiness while the self-aggrandizing statements are put alongside pained observations of the greater racial conflicts in American culture. This juxtaposition is eyed throughout the record with lyrics like, "How am I supposed to have a good time when death and destruction is all that I see?" or others that make reference to "fighting the white man every day", black men being crucified or being handcuffed with their skin turning blue. One can feel the exhaustion within Staples's point of view: his lyrics are not a mere observation of his life, but a fight for agency in a country that will judge him by the color of his skin versus any talent or achievement he might reach.

Staples clearly understands himself to be special, going so far as to refer to himself as a genius on "Homage", but understands the fragility of this position, referencing the actor River Phoenix, another precocious talent who died too early. His clear interest in "taken too soon" talents like Winehouse and Phoenix take on a new poignancy when put alongside the grander observations of racial violence.

The Big Fish Theory underscores the politics of Staples's lyrics through its sound. Actively engaging with both Detroit techno and house music, the album restores the politics that were naturally embedded in the music by the artists that initially made it. Before being coopted into the mainstream, techno and house music both reflected the industrialized urban centers that the artists making the music lived in while also providing an inclusionary bastion for people of different cultural backgrounds, races, and sexualities. The Big Fish Theory feels like a modern iteration of these genres in practice, versus the Xeroxed impression you might have listening to a Disclosure record. The bass throughout is both melodic and punishing, often featured very high in the mix, so it runs in conflict to Staples's vocals rather than serving them.

This is a body-oriented record, splitting the difference between chest-rattling pressure and hardcore, but danceable tracks. The abrasion here is tempered by colorful production from a litany of producers (including Bon Iver's Justin Vernon and SOPHIE) as well by frequent vocal contributions from Kilo Kish, whose lithe vocals add a sweet counterpart to Staples's reedy voice. This is club music for a fractured and troubled time, outdoing the Staples-assisted Gorillaz Humanz record at its own game. (Funnily enough, Damon Albarn drops in to coo the opening chorus to "Love Can Be...")

The Big Fish Theory is a powerful and troubling record. It's an epic in miniature that shows a natural progression from Staples's previous work. Fitfully angered and alive, it offers no solution other than to simply commune with its sound. It's decidedly imperfect, mirroring the discomfort at the center of its maker's mind.

8

To be a migrant worker in America is to relearn the basic skills of living. Imagine doing that in your 60s and 70s, when you thought you'd be retired.


Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century

Publisher: W. W. Norton
Author: Jessica Bruder
Publication date: 2017-09
Amazon

There's been much hand-wringing over the state of the American economy in recent years. After the 2008 financial crisis upended middle-class families, we now live with regular media reports of recovery and growth -- as well as rising inequality and decreased social mobility. We ponder what kind of future we're creating for our children, while generally failing to consider who has already fallen between the gaps.

Keep reading... Show less
7

Very few of their peers surpass Eurythmics in terms of artistic vision, musicianship, songwriting, and creative audacity. This is the history of the seminal new wave group

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominating committee's yearly announcement of the latest batch of potential inductees always generates the same reaction: a combination of sputtering outrage by fans of those deserving artists who've been shunned, and jubilation by fans of those who made the cut. The annual debate over the list of nominees is as inevitable as the announcement itself.

Keep reading... Show less

Barry Lyndon suggests that all violence—wars, duels, boxing, and the like—is nothing more than subterfuge for masculine insecurities and romantic adolescent notions, which in many ways come down to one and the same thing.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) crystalizes a rather nocturnal view of heterosexual, white masculinity that pervades much of Stanley Kubrick's films: after slithering from the primordial slime, we jockey for position in ceaseless turf wars over land, money, and women. Those wielding the largest bone/weapon claim the spoils. Despite our self-delusions about transcending our simian stirrings through our advanced technology and knowledge, we remain mired in our ancestral origins of brute force and domination—brilliantly condensed by Kubrick in one of the most famous cuts in cinematic history: a twirling bone ascends into the air only to cut to a graphic match of a space station. Ancient and modern technology collapse into a common denominator of possession, violence, and war.

Keep reading... Show less
10

This book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

Marcelino Truong launched his autobiographical account of growing up in Saigon during the Vietnam War with the acclaimed graphic novel Such a Lovely Little War: Saigon 1961-63, originally published in French in 2012 and in English translation in 2016. That book concluded with his family's permanent relocation to London, England, as the chaos and bloodshed back home intensified.

Now Truong continues the tale with Saigon Calling: London 1963-75 (originally published in French in 2015), which follows the experiences of his family after they seek refuge in Europe. It offers a poignant illustration of what life was like for a family of refugees from the war, and from the perspective of young children (granted, Truong's family were a privileged and upper class set of refugees, well-connected with South Vietnamese and European elites). While relatives and friends struggle to survive amid the bombs and street warfare of Vietnam, the displaced narrator and his siblings find their attention consumed by the latest fashion and music trends in London. The book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

Keep reading... Show less
8

Canadian soul singer Elise LeGrow shines on her impressive interpretation of Fontella Bass' classic track "Rescue Me".

Canadian soul singer Elise LeGrow pays tribute to the classic Chicago label Chess Records on her new album Playing Chess, which was produced by Steve Greenberg, Mike Mangini, and the legendary Betty Wright. Unlike many covers records, LeGrow and her team of musicians aimed to make new artistic statements with these songs as they stripped down the arrangements to feature leaner and modern interpretations. The clean and unfussy sound allows LeGrow's superb voice to have more room to roam. Meanwhile, these classic tunes take on new life when shown through LeGrow's lens.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image