Thursday, November 8, 2018

album review: 'FM!' by vince staples

You know, at this point I think a lot of folks have just given up predicting where Vince Staples is going next. Hell, that came up when I reviewed his last album Big Fish Theory where instead of following off the minimalist west-coast knock of Summertime 06, he yanked everything to the left with some of the most electronic and warped production this side of hip-hop for a brutal, borderline-nihilistic deconstruction of that party that Vince seemed to view with equal parts dispassionate contempt, mischievous glee, and dead-serious urgency. Now for me I've always dug the subtle complexities in Vince Staples' messaging, taking what some might consider the sick jokes underlying certain parts of hip-hop and making them just uncomfortable enough to throw ignorant white audiences for a loop, but what's always frustrated me is that, like Earl Sweatshirt, he's got a skill in boiling things down with real bluntness, but the songs on both a compositional and deeper lyrical level could feel kind of undercooked - the hard messages and nuance was there, but the hooks and themes never quite coalesced to really drive it home for me.

And thus I won't deny I was thrown for a loop when Vince Staples decided to drop a brutally short surprise album out of nowhere, taking the format of FM radio as a backdrop to smuggle in a collection of bangers that he said were more direct and focused than ever, hitting the difference between his studio releases... which okay, to some might reflect a pivot away from experimentation towards conventionality that could feel like misspent potential, but that archetype could be the foundation for what Vince needs, and besides, given how short it is I was up for something brutal and direct after a year full of double and triple albums. So, what did we get from FM!?

So I've said before that Vince Staples projects resist easy analysis, that it's very easy to dismiss them on the first half dozen listens as more hard-living hip-hop posturing, just with a much sharper nihilistic bent - hell, even despite the wild production choices on Big Fish Theory it might seem to fit into that range. And so with FM!, even further streamlined to just over twenty minutes with three interludes, you could easily be deceived to think that there's just not much to get with this project - and then miss the much darker underlying point that Vince Staples has slid between the lines, where the project almost demands to be considered as a singular album statement.

So let's start with that statement, and keep in mind that like with all of his projects, there's a level of hard-bitten, realistic subversion that Vince brings to this - and the key to getting it is almost so obvious you could be forgiven for missing it: the radio. See, peppered across the album are snippets to make this album sound like it's being played on the radio in its entirety, specifically from the L.A. radio show Big Boy's Neighbourhood, with snippets of banter in between songs, interludes announcing tour dates and new music from other artists altogether - notably here from Tyga and Earl Sweatshirt - a call-in snippet that could seem like a humourous aside before the pitch-dark conclusion, even the sounds of fuzz bookending the album as someone tunes to the station. And while plenty of hip-hop artists have used cut-in radio segments before - especially in the skits that flourished in the 2000s, almost always used as a quick shoutout to build hype for the artist - there's something decidedly 'normal' about how they're placed and arranged, almost as if they aren't part of an album at all. And then you notice that nearly every single song is set up showing the same sort of brutally realistic gang violence, bleak paranoia, poverty, and desperate hustle - there's a uniformity of content that hasn't otherwise shown up on a Vince Staples project, especially as it seems to have some of his catchiest-ever hooks. And yet throughout that, Big Boy never comments on the content of the material beyond cursory references to titles in order to string together transitions - it's almost as if he doesn't recognize or care about the bloodshed running through all of these tracks and a body count that gets higher with every track. 

And then you get to the call-in number skit where Big Boy challenges 'Christian' - subtle - to name seven people whose names starts with 'v', he doesn't name Vince Staples - in fact, Vince's name is never uttered across the entire project, to only further highlight a sense of ignored anonymity. But there are names mentioned - friends and family who have died around them, memorialized in song, but the radio around them doesn't pay any mind - they don't seem to care, and why would they, why would those names matter to a predominantly white audience... and if you've gotten to the blunt point Vince is making, well, he's not being subtle. On both 'Feels Like Summer' and 'Don't Get Chipped', Vince doesn't hesitate to highlight a white audience who'll vibe and sing along to every bloody line while ignoring the humanity beneath it - because they're allowed to, by a system and society that strips away the larger context and desensitizes that audience through banal repetition and a refusal to engage more deeply. But for Vince Staples it's survival - it's why the acronym 'fun' becomes 'fuck up nothing', it's how morbid the verse of 'No Bleedin' becomes as he shouts out his dead homies as if they're alive, and it's how on the final song 'Tweakin', the only point where real melancholy is allowed to seep in, Vince acknowledges he is a face and a name... but in the trap all his friends are dead, and even that name will be ignored even as the song title is shouted out, as the radio cycles on to the next hit. 

And here's the unsettling thing: Vince Staples did all of this while probably making his most melodically solid, catchy album to date, with the production fitting snugly into accessible west-coast trends with the grimy, programmed beats, seedy keyboards, and an abundance of melodic hooks. And while it's easy to point to Ty Dolla $ign sounding as good as ever on 'Feels Like Summer' to Jay Rock stepping up for the melancholy of 'Don't Get Chipped', I have to give points to Vince himself for delivering his most consistent and well-structured flows to date with a fair amount of melody in their own right. Still as eerie and minimalist as Summertime 06, but from the off-key whistles of 'Feels Like Summer' and 'Don't Get Chipped', the washed out plucky sample of the Nyan Cat for 'Outside' to highlight the ghoulish juxtaposition in pushing this material to kids, the wiry warping bombast of 'Relay', the gothic organ dripping behind 'Run The Bands', the blubbery knock of 'FUN!' with that great sleigh bell and a nice E-40 feature, even down to the desaturated bleakness of 'Tweakin' with Buddy and Kehlani, there's more consistent melody and hooks than he's ever had to date, and it does him a lot of credit. Hell, given how streamlined this project is it gives me precious room to criticize anything... but if I am going to nitpick anything, it's fairly minor details. I'd have replaced Tyga with literally any other west coast MC on that little interlude - come on, you don't have a problem working with bloods given Jay Rock is here, YG would have been ideal for that interlude especially given his content - and the part of me that was thrilled to see Earl Sweatshirt wishes we would have gotten more than twenty or so seconds of him. And while I'm nitpicking guest performances, there's a part of me that thinks that 'Tweakin' could have hit harder if it was just Vince Staples to intensify that loneliness, and I do wish both E-40 and Kamaiyah had connected their verses to the underlying ideas within each of their songs.

But yeah, stepping away from this, I found myself a little startled in how much this album connected with me, especially in a way that neither Summertime 06 or Big Fish Theory did. The songs are still chock full of details but nothing that detracts or distracts from the larger theme and picture, the hooks are better than ever, and the fact that Vince Staples squeezed all of this into twenty-two harrowing minutes is genuinely impressive in the best way possible. And it goes without saying that it bangs - but the fact that it forces the audience to confront the consequences behind it along the way got to me in much of the same way similar loaded subtext filled Pusha-T's Daytona from earlier this year. And yeah, it's rising to that echelon of greatness, netting an 8/10 from me and absolutely a recommendation. Folks, it's twenty-two minutes: you have no excuse not to hear this - it's Vince Staples at most focused, most catchy, and most cutting. So yeah, don't touch that dial, check this out.

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