Vince Staples's third full-length album is a stunner.Def Jam Recordings / ARTium Recordings / Blacksmith Records, 2017
9.2 / 10
One of the most interesting trends in hip-hop as of late has been rapper-centric projects that see the artist pull back on the reins in favor of illustrating a greater picture. Some degree of this has always been in hip-hop’s DNA. That’s how we got “emcee” as a hip-hop term. But it’s been interesting to see who can pull it off and who thinks they can get away with it. The failures use this approach as a mask for shortcomings. But the best and brightest assure with narratives and mission statements. Big Fish Theory may be far lighter on rapping than its predecessor Summertime ‘06. However, Vince Staples loads it with more meaning.
I can’t listen to Big Fish Theory without feeling Staples’s dissatisfaction with those who celebrate their own destitution. He raps eloquently about clubs and parties and all this awesome shit he’s seen. Yet, none of it is celebratory. It is never overly dour to the point of sounding joyless. But the lasting image of the album is Staples looking at the madness before him and wondering if his peers are content. His last lines on the album: “Make it rain, in the club / Don’t you dream of how it feel to be in love? / What, you drinking? Need a buzz? / Don’t drown in the brown, just drown in the sound“.
What helps all of this anti-party talk go down smooth is that it might be the party jam of the year. Big Fish Theory’s beats come from several big name producers of the electronic and experimental pop scene, including Flume, GTA, and Sophie. Here, they take the opportunity to lay down a steady stream of bangers. “Love Can Be…” sees GTA challenge Staples to keep time with a swaying synth line. “Homage” is a snappy bit of claustrophobia that would have been at least the third best track on Yeezus. “Yeah Right”‘s big honking everything is almost worthy of its Kendrick Lamar guest spot. Also, his verse here is better than anything on DAMN.. The effect is that Big Fish Theory is more comparable to Boy In Da Corner and Atrocity Exhibition in terms of being an ear-pleasing commitment to a wild sonic palette.
There’s one main shortcoming to Big Fish Theory. Its brief runtime does not allow for extended expansion into its themes. I could easily see all of this going over some heads. This, after all, is a party jam that’s against parties. It wants the audience to question themselves even as they’re moving to the beat. Big Fish Theory isn’t the first hip-hop album to attempt this approach. Still, it is far better at it than most, bowing only to Kendrick Lamar’s two best albums. I thought I had Staples pegged as a loser a few years back. This coming after he made a crass joke on an Earl Sweatshirt album that was gaudy to such a degree that even Odd Future fans thought it was too much. I’ve never been so happy to be completely wrong.