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Vince Staples dominates the airwaves on ‘FM!’

| Thursday, November 8, 2018

Lina Domenella | The Observer

You don’t hear Vince Staples on the radio, if you even listen to the radio anymore. Staples operates on the fringes of mainstream rap music, rarely making it onto the airwaves but staying consistently popular thanks to streaming technology. His status in the rap ecosystem is partly the product of his refusal to conform and partly due to his indifferent, “I-don’t-give-a-f—” attitude. Despite this status, on his latest release, “FM!,” Staples imagines a world in which his music is the centerpiece of the California radio market.

The 11 songs of “FM!” are seamlessly tied together by radio-style interludes provided by the hosts of Los Angeles’ “Big Boy’s Neighborhood.” The interludes and radio show concept allow for Staples to introduce creative features, such as a solo appearance from the elusive Earl Sweatshirt on “New earlsweatshirt – Interlude.” The concept also links “FM!” to Staples’ recurring topic, his hometown and the violence that besieges it.

The album begins with L.A. radio staple Big Boy celebrating California’s beautiful, summer-all-the-time weather, announcing, “It always feels like summer in the neighborhood, man.” For Staples, however, the summertime means something darker, as the Long Beach native enters the intro track spitting “Summertime in the LB wild / We gon’ party ’til the sun or the guns come out.”

While California is often painted as an idyllic vacation destination, Staples chooses to paint a harsher picture of the area he knows so well. With expert storytelling and vivid imagery, he captures the constant threats to safety that come along with life in his neighborhood. On “Relay,” there’s the fear of being pulled over by the cops with a weapon, or “hammer,” in the passenger seat. On “Outside!” there’s the pressure of gang violence and being caught on the wrong street at the wrong time.

Staples’ lyrics have always been gripping, and “FM!” is no exception. On “Tweakin’,” he weaves in the names of friends who died too young, emotionlessly stating, “When Jibari died was off the porch for homicides.” He mixes deeper ideas — “My black is beautiful but I’ll still shoot at you” — with clever wordplay — “I got Christian Dior, I’m Crippin’ Bior” — to create a tension between every line he delivers.

In terms of production, “FM!” is a return to form. While Staples’ 2017 release “Big Fish Theory” was a left-of-center project centered around sleek, electronic production, “FM!” brings back the West Coast production style found on earlier albums. The versatile Kenny Beats lays down upbeat, high-energy arrangements that bounce off the walls and don’t allow for a dull moment to set in. Staples matches the energy of the beats at every turn, giving the album a rapid pace from start to finish.

The runtime of “FM!” is particularly notable. Clocking in at only 22 minutes, the album is easily digestible in one straight-through listen. It’s a refreshing example of brevity in a market teeming with oversized releases from the genre’s biggest stars. But Staples has never been one to conform to what the stars are doing. He’s stayed out of the box, comfortable with the fame he’s accrued and never afraid to make a bold creative decision like switching up styles or making a compelling music video. It’s this boldness and creativity that keeps Staples’ music interesting — and also keeps it off mainstream radio.

Artist: Vince Staples

Album: FM!

Label: Def Jam

Favorite Tracks: “Summertime,” “Don’t Get Chipped,” “FUN!”

If You Like: Earl Sweatshirt; Tyler, the Creator; Danny Brown

Shamrocks: 4 out of 5

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