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‘Big Fish Theory’ proves Vince Staples is rap’s coldest outsider

| Monday, August 28, 2017

BIGFISHWEBJOSEPH HAN | The Observer

Vince Staples has X-ray vision. He is not a showy or pretentious intellectual. Rather, Staples has the gift of seeing through veneer with incredible ease. Staples effortlessly observes and analyzes the world around him with a devoted skepticism that must be difficult to bear. His latest record — the downright chilly “Big Fish Theory” — is, in part, a portrait of how Staples skepticism weighs on his happiness.

Almost every Vince Staples song contains some element of exposure or critical investigation in its bars. Staples is still fixated with the horror that can exist against the beautiful backdrop of Southern California; he “wishes it would rain” (Alyssa Interlude) occasionally so that his hometown’s climate could match the way he often feels. A whole host of things have caught Staples’ analytical gaze since his 2015 record “Summertime ’06” propelled him into music fame. Multiple songs on “Big Fish Theory” are blatant criticisms of the gaudy display that rappers eagerly enact in an attempt to validate their status. Yet, Staples often aims to make even grander critiques of American society. The “pretty women” who told him lies on the track “745” are not only some women he knows, but also stand in for deceptive advertising and the false glitz of Hollywood. The album’s pre-release single, “BagBak,” was a fast-paced banger that could soundtrack a socialist revolution.

Vince Staples does not express rage or hope in his criticism either. Staples always sounds, heartbreakingly, like he has been too crushed to have those feelings. He has mastered the art of the detached critique. Much like on the brilliant “Summertime ’06,” “Big Fish Theory” does not have room for feelings, only for practical nihilism. Vince’s lyrics fit cozily into the production of “Big Fish Theory.” While the production on past projects has always utilized synths, and has frequently had a gritty, inorganic sound, “Big Fish Theory” is a risky progression deeper into the aesthetic Staples has tried to cultivate for years. His beats sound even more futuristic, more digital and colder than ever before. Staples’ flow is faster, often matching the blazing 808s that he is rapping over.

The experimentation itself is not at all “Big Fish Theory’s” problem. Unfortunately, “Big Fish Theory” too often sacrifices a musically interesting chorus in favor of sticking to its unique aesthetic. In fact, the experimental aspects of this record work very well. From the hollow, icy opening of “Crabs in A Bucket” to the melancholic bass line accompanying Ty Dolla $ign’s vocals on closer “Rain Come Down,” the work showcases some unique and trailblazing sounds. However, the album simply does not feel complete. “Party People” and “BagBak” are dynamic respites from an album with somewhat washed out percussion, and multiple songs have extremely repetitive choruses.

“Homage” features a haunting keyboard riff and top-notch verses from Staples, yet suffers from the album’s boring, repetitive choruses. Some songs, like “SAMO” do not even benefit from particularly great verses. At times, Staples’ vocals are shrouded in reverb and make him sound like he’s pouring out his soul to an empty white chamber one would see in “Black Mirror.” At other times, however, Staples’ natural goofy vocal fluctuations make the delivery more intimate. It is a neat engineering trick on an album which occasionally suffers from stale lyricism. Kendrick Lamar’s predictably awe-inspiring, furious guest verse on “Yeah Right” are rewards for sitting through a chorus-weak album. “Big Fish” is a simple banger that features one of the original kings of simplicity, Juicy J, and while the repeating dance music style chorus work well on “Big Fish,” the format’s overuse is the crucial failing point of “Big Fish Theory.”

A friend of mine is dedicated to a theory that every move Drake makes is designed to drill him closer to pop culture’s core. From the “Views” cover to the “Hotline Bling” video, it seems like everything Drake does is meme-able. Meanwhile, King Kendrick Lamar seems to instantly become a pop culture force without any effort or design. Vince Staples’ greatest artistic asset is his willingness to be an outsider and mercilessly condemn any thing or view that is popular. At a time when many are becoming disillusioned with anything popular, Staples’ outsider analysis is necessary. A Vince Staples album with too many droning choruses is, after all, still a Vince Staples album, and it still provokes more thought than almost any other rap record from 2017.

Artist: Vince Staples

Album: “Big Fish Theory”

Label: Def Jam Recordings

Tracks: “Party People” “745”

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