Vince Staples made a splash with his first record Summertime ’06 when it was released in 2015—he hit a few year-end lists and really carved a spot for himself in the contemporary American Hip hop scene. Since then, he’s released a good tie-over EP, Prima Donna, and been featured on several high-profile tracks—most conspicuously on the new Gorillaz album. Now, after teasing three singles over the past 6 months, he’s released his sophomore LP Big Fish Theory. Fans and critics alike waited anxiously to see if he could top his debut. Whether or not you believe he has—Big Fish Theory is a great album in its own right.
From the first track, “Crabs in a Bucket,” this record consistently surprises and impresses. Here, Staples’ lyrics contrast the vindictive spitefulness of dissing in rap culture with the greater “battle with the white man” waged by Hip hop on the social level. Kilo Kish’s outro brings us lyrically back to the personal—there’s a consolation in love. The opener’s soft washing electronics and shuffling post-garage drum kit immediately mark Big Fish Theory’s production as something special. The gritty analogue synths nicely complement its lyrical hopelessness. These lyrics introduce the central theme of the album—attempting to reconcile one’s pretentious social persona with one’s vulnerable and personal identity. But as the album moves forward, Staples does not content himself with duplicating the lyrics or the sound of the opener, and instead we hear a variety of producers with other remarkable experimentation.
For example, on “Yeah Right” producers Sophie and Flume bring the poppy plasticity and minimal immediacy of the PC Music aesthetic to rap—this is especially apparent in Kučka’s vocal feature. Its dirty bassline propels the track forward with sheer explosiveness. The cymbals sound like they were lifted from some pure-industrial Einstürzende Neubauten track in spite of sputtering Trap rhythms. In his verses, Staples lyrically attacks the pretense of the gangster guise used so often in Hip hop—consistent with the album’s greater theme of big-fish stories. Kendrick Lamar’s closing verse acts as an answer to Staples’ indictment—and specifically addresses how Lamar’s own music fits into that characterization of Hip hop. To match this dialogue, the chorus itself (“Boy yeah right”) has a weird call-and-response structure to it, where Staples speaks and is answered by a group. It’s an experimental track structurally, sonically, and lyrically—and it stands out even among other great songs.
Tangled between this narrative of Hip hop pretense there are also discussions of love and vulnerability. “Alyssa Interlude” samples an interview with Amy Winehouse during which she discusses the process of writing her own music, specifically her love songs. Staples sings a love-song verse interpolated with “I Wish It Would Rain” by The Temptations to close the track. Pretense and love collide on the next track, “Love Can Be…”, a club song more about the emptiness of false love than anything else. But the collaborative quality of this track seems to also emphasize the importance of loving other—how could Staples have made this track without his friends? It features Kilo Kish, Ray J, and Damon Albarn packed into a dense 3-minutes. Staples also conspicuously quotes Kendrick Lamar’s “For Free? (Interlude)” from To Pimp a Butterfly—an act which at once references the vacuity of sex discussed on the Kendrick track while also valuing the collaborative and shared nature of musical creation.
The album’s second half falls off a bit with a few less remarkable tracks like “Party People” and “BagBak”—but the musical and lyrical themes are upheld strongly even on the weakest points of Big Fish Theory. Then the album seems to come back together for a strong finish on “Rain Come Down,” which begins with a cool-down modern R&B chorus sung by Ty Dolla $ign. This eventually gives way to a smooth trap beat and relaxed rapping (read as: not his usual double-time madness) from Staples. The song contrasts the typical rap braggadocio—which Staples has come to embody himself by the end of the album—with heartbreak—the rain coming down. The album ends with washing synths reminiscent of how it began.
We’re left with a pretty wonderful Hip hop album, all around—one that examines its musical context closely while also pushing its sound, one that examines its culture closely while also admitting its own place in that culture, and one that executes everything it sets out to do. It clocks in at a quick 36 minutes, so it’s short enough to merit repeat listens without demanding too much time or attention. Clearly Vince Staples has not disappointed the high expectations of critics or fans, and you can expect to be talked about highly for years to come.