The first song on Big Fish Theory, the second LP from Long Beach native Vince Staples, might make you forget he’s a hip-hop artist. Or, at least, that he’s supposed to be a hip-hop artist. “Crabs In A Bucket,” the opening track, appears as a phrase in Staples’ debut LP Summertime ’06. The song in which it’s uttered, “Señorita,” feels miles (and years) away. “We crabs in a bucket, he called me a crab / So I shot him in front of the Douglas,” he says, no lisp or lilt to him. “Crabs In A Bucket,” keeping cadence with Staples’ stream of increasingly experimental and boundless music, is not a braggadocio flex of power. It is not rap, exactly, nor is it hip-hop. Vince Staples’ music has, as of late, relied on electronics; he retains his schizoid, staccato delivery and bolsters it with a bevy of backing synth. All of his sonic ingenuity withholding, Vince Staples remains an enigma in rap music. “Nails in the black man’s hands and feet / Put him on a cross so we put him on chain” he deadpans on “Crabs In A Bucket,” the same Long Beach kid living in an increasingly racially-divided America.
Short as his career is so far, Staples is a self-referential artist. There are several throwbacks to his earlier work, overt winks dropped like breadcrumbs: the same Long Beach kid making different music. “Ramona, I was ’round that corner / Still down, I’m a Norf Norf soldier” he says on “Big Fish,” and I can hear the haunting, alien drone of Summertime ’06‘s “Norf Norf” in the back of my head. Likewise in his allusions to his own past works, he references other artists, both musically and nonmusically—old and new. Concerning the old, the cover art for Summertime ’06 is a clear derivative of Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures; curiously, both records are careful and masterful exercises in minimalism. Big Fish Theory‘s ninth track is titled “SAMO,” an unquestionable chisel off Jean-Michel Basquiat’s block—a tongue-in-cheek reference to Basquiat’s graffiti pseudonym SAMO (“same old shit”). Concerning the new, there’s a timely shout to Kendrick Lamar (who features on “Yeah Right”) on BFT‘s fourth track “Love Can Be…”: “No shotgun seat, this dick ain’t free.”
The mark of a truly inimitable artist is a comprehensive, holistic understanding of their art form. This understanding comes not only in the form said art takes, but its basic function as well. Vince Staples has the chops to build a universe of sound and tear it to shreds with his delivery. For example, “745” claps a bass-heavy chorus trickled with celestial synth beats. These elements both clash and compliment Staples’ muted-tenor voice. “745” is a song of childhood dreams fully realized: “All my life man I want fast cars,” he says: “No green grass, no porch / I just want sea shores.” To Vince Staples, though, it’s clear that not all dreams come true. To Vince, love is an abstract concept. He feels its pull and yet it continues to elude him: “This thing called ‘love’ real hard for me / This thing called ‘love’ is a God to me,” Vince raps in his usual monotone, while his stone-faced refusal to linger on depression comes into focus. “Adam, Eve / Apple trees / Watch out for the snakes baby.”
On “Yeah Right,” producer Flume’s beat smacks and dazes. Vince Staples hates rap clichés. If his refusal to become one is not evidence enough, “Yeah Right” is fire to the kiln. The song title should be punctuated with a question mark: “Is your house big, is your car nice?” he starts, asking “How the thug life?” Kendrick Lamar is a fitting feature; he is another young black man raised in and around institutionalized poverty and violence—and yet another young black man who defied staggering odds and transformed his chaotic upbringing into uncompromising art. “K-Dot twilight the zeitgeist” Kendrick says, and we already know he’s right. Old rap clichés have had their day: money, cars, and women hold no weight. Realness reigns, like it or not. Vince Staples (and Kendrick Lamar) are nothing if not real. There’s not a cell in their bodies that reads “compromise.”
“These niggas won’t hold me back,” Vince raps on the chorus of “Homage,” and the man is practically sprinting. No one can hold him in check, not even himself. “Outrun my gun, I’m the bigshot now,” he says at breakneck speed. Vince curtails this boast with, yet again, a wink to the recent past: “Prima Donna had them like ‘wow!'” The following song is an entirely different story.
“SAMO” is stuck in sludge, a song that simultaneously bangs and halts. “It’s the same old thing / Watch me do the same old thing” he says, and it’s hard to shake the thought that Vince is taking shots at mainstream hip-hop’s principle fanbase. Once again, I come back to Jean-Michel Basquiat—I can’t count how many times his name has showed up on my blog. Basquiat’s influence in modern African-American art is so far-reaching as to be a blanket. Basquiat’s SAMO street art was obscure, oblique poetry; it was meant to confuse, confound, and ultimately start a discussion about the individual’s place in a capitalist society. Vince tips his hat to Basquiat, in his characteristic staccato: “We don’t do no bargain shoppin’, we don’t show no empathy / Empty out your pockets, $10,000 fee for that talkin’ / Eye contact is an extra five.”
Big Fish Theory‘s final two songs, “BagBak” and “Rain Come Down,” were released as separate singles prior to BTF‘s drop on June 23rd. In my understanding of Vince Staples, it makes sense; the two songs show Vince in two different lights. “BagBak,” a phonetic iteration of “back back” (as in “get the fuck back”), finds Vince relating back to the Christ-imagery in “Crabs In A Bucket.” Now, however, he is more lucid, more contemporary and vicious: “Our father art in heaven, as I pray for new McLarens / Pray the police don’t come blow me down ’cause of my complexion.” This theme goes all the way back to Vince’s 2013 EP, Hell Can Wait, a collection of raw and angry songs directly addressing police violence against black Americans. That was four years ago, and unfortunately (or rather disgustingly), not much has changed. Vince, ever the contrarian, holds trot with the mainstream media—his fear of an anonymous death at the hands of the police is thrown in at the end of the verse, almost as an afterthought. It plays second-heel to those new McLarens.
In contrast, “Rain Come Down” is a dark, almost gothic hip-hop song. Ty Dolla $ign’s infectious repetition of the chorus (“Rain come down”) rubs against Vince’s bleak lyrics: “I’m the blood on the leaves / I’m the nose on the Sphinx.” The former portion of the verse needs no explanation. The latter portion of the verse references a popular historical theory that Egypt’s Great Sphinx had its nose removed to hide its predominantly African features. The Sphinx and its broken, bastardized appearance is the essence of Vince Staples’ music. Civil disobedience means fuck-all if you don’t somehow connect it to our history.
Vince Staples, for better or for worse, is an artist with a steady, near-religious temperament. He is casual, matter-of-fact and, at times, positively stony. If he weren’t so goddamn unassuming, he may already be making his case to sit side-by-side with hip-hop’s greatest creators. Vince Staples is a rap dissenter, a man of clout and conviction unmatched in modern hip-hop music. Again, for better or worse, there’s no changing the man. As they say, “you can take the kid out of Long Beach….”
Vince Staples arrived some time ago. He’s here, at this very moment, bearing witness to yet another police shooting, yet another rapper falsely touting the gang lifestyle, yet another disparaged social class royally fucked by the system. Again, he’s here—he’s not leaving. In this blogger’s opinion, his place among contemporary hip-hop’s elite creators is cemented and dried. And as far as the Big Fish Theory goes—big fish prowl the water, gobbling up anything feeble or small enough to swallow. They are remorseless, savage; being cold-blooded is necessary to survival. In the history of hip-hop, in a sea of millions of MC’s and Soundcloud rappers and OG’s, Vince Staples cannot—and will not—be categorized. Vince Staples is a big fish, one we’ve yet to catch.
Favorite tracks: “Crabs In A Bucket,” “Big Fish,” “Love Can Be…,” “745,” “Yeah Right,” “SAMO,” “BagBak,” “Rain Come Down”