Thursday, July 13, 2017

album review: 'big fish theory' by vince staples

I have a hard time getting a grip on what Vince Staples is doing. 

And I don't think I'm the only one here. Like most people I started getting into him through his 2014 EP Hell Can Wait and its relentless, hard-hitting darkness, tinged with a frank gallows humor where the edge was only intensified by how close it hit to home for him. The language was blunt, the production was stripped down and lean, and by the time he released his viciously sharp double album debut Summertime 06, I was all set to get on-board... and yet unlike so many critics, I wasn't quite taken in. Maybe I was expecting the curt lyricism to build to a little more or show a little more refinement, maybe the production was in fact too stripped down to stick with me, maybe it was that Vince Staples delivered an hour-long double album for his debut that probably should have been trimmed back in order to add a little more density... look, I remember liking the record a fair bit, but I didn't love it.

And yet from there, I got the impression Vince wasn't one to stick with that sound, and when I heard his follow-up this year Big Fish Theory was attracting controversy for pivoting more towards hip-house and Detroit techno... well, there was a part of me that wasn't surprised, especially given that style would probably compliment the blunt nihilistic themes of his lyricism fairly well. Hell, I had heard how well he had worked opposite Gorillaz earlier this year, and this sound on this record was probably aiming to be more ragged and experimental, especially for hip-hop. So okay, what did we hook on Big Fish Theory?

This is one of those projects that, like Vince Staples himself, seems to actively resist analysis, not quite the active trolling of the audience and critics that was Do What Thou Wilt from Ab-Soul, but I think it's a much more apt comparison than everyone trying to draw parallels with Yeezus - although just like that record, the production was an abrasive left turn that ultimately didn't feel nearly as shocking or boundary-pushing as so many have said. And I think that roughly parallels my feelings on Big Fish Theory as a whole - for sure an interesting project that on an instrumental level will challenge mainstream hip-hop listeners who haven't heard of Missy Elliott, but while there are potent ideas here, at the end of the day I repeatedly found myself underwhelmed and I'm still trying to untangle why that is.

So let me start with the things I unquestionably like about this, most of which surrounds Vince Staples himself. Without question he has a distinctive voice and presence on this record, and his bars were significantly tightened up compared to some of the sloppiness that crept onto Summertime 06, and considering the emotional tightrope this record walks, that's saying a lot. It's very clear that while that last record was somewhat backwards looking, this record is more focused on his current state - having found success and fame and a way out of a violent past, he's asking 'what now' and doesn't have time for many of the answers. It's a similar sort of pragmatism that I remember coming through on YG's Still Brazy, but Vince is much more mischievous, so he's going to deconstruct and rip apart the veils of success and the lifestyle porn pushed by wealthy rappers... mostly because he knows it's not really making them - or him - happy. He's not going to deny it's given him some security, but when he includes an extended sample of Amy Winehouse describing her artistic process and how self-destructive it can feel, it's hard not to think that Vince sees himself as a kindred spirit to it. 

Of course, some of that 'nuke-my-career-from-orbit' tone might be partially mirrored in the production, which opts for abrasive, rubbery synths, rigid drum machines that pull from the bass-heavy knock of trap to Detroit techno and footwork, and synth tones that range from watery g-funk to the unstable howling warps that are a pretty blatant indicator that he got SOPHIE for some of this production. And while the mainstream might be able to groove with some of these hooks - the Juicy J-assist on 'Big Fish', the more opulent g-funk trap fusion of '745', and especially the Rick Ross interpolation on 'Homage' that I really liked - I also wouldn't be surprised if some of this had them running for the hills. The frigid windswept groove with choppy vocal fragments on 'Crabs In A Bucket', the bassy house glitch of 'Love Can Be...', and especially any of the hollow shrieking and bassy contributions on 'SAMO' and 'Yeah Right', it's definitely a left-field move... and yet I kept waiting to be surprised or really grabbed by a lot of it, and it didn't quite happen. I wouldn't say I actively disliked any of it - I'm an easy sell on g-funk, and after a fashion the distorted bassy layers didn't really faze me - but just like with Summertime 06 I found myself wishing that these didn't feel so bare-bones and lacking in a strong melodic foundation. I won't deny that the percussion and synths pick up plenty of texture and bite, but at the root of it, maybe Vince Staples wouldn't have to rely on such lyrically simplistic and repetitive hooks if he let some of those synths carry a consistent tune. And again, while Vince has pulled on good producers, I can't be the only one who hears this and thinks that if Missy Elliott was still consistently releasing music it would sound a lot like this?

Granted, that might be more tied to general issues I have with hip-house and this sort of techno-driven production - I remember saying similar things about Azealia Banks three years ago - but that's not really what's keeping me from embracing this work altogether. I think for that we need to return to the content and bars, and again, I like a lot of what Vince Staples is doing here. For one, just like on Summertime 06 his usage of Kilo Kush is inspired, playing the bored, dismissive L.A. brat that'll screw Vince for his money but really treats him as disposable and is not willing to engage with any real darkness that might underscore his words - right from the opening track, she says bluntly she 'forgot to care' and would like him to avert his gaze, or on 'Love Can Be...' wants to make memories on daddy's yacht but never any more. And while you could make an argument that Vince comes right up to the line of misogyny by how frequently he characterizes women like this, in truth he's making a larger point about people's obsession with the image and veneer of hip-hop rather than confronting what might be at the root of their issues, comfortable revisiting the same old party over and over again and swallowing the same shallow luxury porn that to Vince seems utterly wasteful. And while I will say it was kind of inspired to get A$AP Rocky on 'SAMO' to emphasize that point - a little less so to get Kendrick to play foil on 'Yeah Right', where I wasn't exactly over the moon by his verse - but it's also telling that on some songs Vince is participating in that same hip-hop climate and you could argue he's perpetuated much of the same image, just against more experimental production - and he knows it. 

Now this is where many people have highlighted nihilistic themes in Vince's work, and I've never been totally onboard with that - both this record and Summertime 06 might seem bleak or nihilistic but they reflect depression and a sober reality, and you can tell that Vince is trying to use his music to both confront that reality and maybe find something better going forward outside of that system... and yet that is a conclusion more supported by subtext than actual text on this record. Part of this is that it can feel a little blunt and underwritten - frequently clever, but not quite as hard-hitting as it thinks, especially when there are points on already short tracks like 'Rain Come Down' where he just repeats a verse altogether - but then you have tracks like 'BagBak' where Vince gets political and says he won't vote - I get fighting a broken system, but having the privilege of enough money to not need to engage, that's a sort of nihilism I find incredibly tiresome. And maybe that's at the root of it all - while I get the hopeful subtext and subversions, so much of the actual text doesn't contribute to it, and the further divorced it feels from deeper consequences beyond Vince himself, it becomes a lot harder to justify and honestly starts to feel a bit tedious.

But beyond all of that, let me stress I do like this record. I don't love it - the production is potent but doesn't really grip me as much as I'd like, and once you get a rough handle on what Vince Staples is saying it doesn't quite feel as clever as I'd like, basically doing thematically much of what clipping did to much greater effect on their self-titled record three years ago - but it's a promising project and showcases a ton of talent and ingenuity coming from Vince Staples going forward. For me, it's a light 7/10 and a recommendation, but a bit of a cautious one - these sorts of subversive projects can be a tough sell, especially given how the sound has shifted. But hey, we need troublemakers like Vince Staples, and with projects like this, he's keeping folks on their toes, so check this out!

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