2017 has been a heavy year for albums, especially those of the rap variety. In the first two months of the year alone, we received stellar offerings from Cardi B, Big Sean, Jidenna, Remy Ma and Fat Joe, Oddisee, and literally dozens of smaller peripheral artists who fall into the hip-hop music genre. Needless to say, come award season, there will be plenty of material to sort through for Grammy award voters. However, one album that should absolutely be considered is Vince Staples’ Big Fish Theory, and that’s why we’re putting this out here now, because if it got lost in the shuffle, not only would it be a loss for Vince but for all of hip-hop as well.
Rap is a funny genre. A premium is placed on hardcore beats and even harder personalities, but if you push too hard in that direction, you run the risk of being considered fake or, even worse, staid in comparison to other, more up-to-date artists. Consider the tough-guy demeanor and content of someone like DMX, who would surely have a difficult time gaining traction in a hip-hop ecosystem that now includes Young Thug or Drake as the nearest thing to an apex predator “the game” has.
Somehow, Vince Staples sidesteps all of the convoluted unwritten rules and regulations that hang like Damocles’ sword over other MCs. He has the pedigree, undoubtedly; he was born and raised in North Long Beach, just a five-minute bus ride from neighboring Compton, gang-banged his way through high school and all over his early material, right on up through his Def Jam debut, Summertime 06, and has an almost nihilistic apathy toward both the trauma of his upbringing and the trappings of fame that are allowing him to escape it.
However, he does not honor his gangsta rap forebears so much as he does acknowledge them in passing, always showing respect, but never backing down or kowtowing to the oftentimes arbitrary benchmarks of rap fandom or stardom. He praises the works of Lil Bow Wow while calling the gilded ‘90s “overrated.” He cracks off-hand jokes about how everybody in rap “has boof lines” on Twitter, but turns around and uses the same platform to break down white privilege and systematic racial inequality — which he’s seen from the inside, making him uniquely qualified to speak on both its macro effects and the devastating consequences for anyone trapped in the system and written off by society.
However, Big Fish also finds time to dig into Vince’s personal life with surprisingly soulful, introspective jams like “745,” where he declares “all my life pretty women done told me lies,” and actually demands the very award I’m advocating for him to win on “Homage,” wondering “Where the f*ck is my VMA? / Where the f*ck is my Grammy?” while simultaneously lamenting that he is likely “too cultured and too ghetto” to do so.
But where the album truly stands out is that there is literally no rap album out now — even with all the many, many releases from 2017 — that sounds like it. For all of Young Thug and Future’s warbling, their sonic palette does not extend much beyond the rumbling trap provided by Metro Boomin and Southside. Drake experimented with world sounds on More Life and was roundly criticized — fairly or not — for merely creating mediocre facsimiles of the source sounds. A number of rappers embraced throwback sounds, like Your Old Droog and Joey Badass and Westside Gunn, but felt more like they were only paying homage to a bygone era, disinterested in advancing hip-hop into its next iteration.
Big Fish, on the other hand, sounds like a post-apocalyptic pinball machine, with buzzsaw synths and outer space laser blasters layered over skittering, paranoia-inducing snares that don’t so much as throw out the Rap Record Rulebook as snatch pages out seemingly at random before stuffing them back in out of order and upside down, then lighting the whole thing on fire while tripping acid. Take “Crabs In A Bucket,” which begins like a scene out of Hackers or some such cyberpunk fantasy, all whispering breeze and distorted vocal clips, before the clicking, clattering drums completely upend the expected four-on-the-floor expectations set by the song’s intro.
Meanwhile, Vince uses this unnerving sound set to deconstruct the institutionalization of young Black men in America, comparing incarcerated African American men to the crucified Christ while avowing his own disillusionment with religion and lost faith that anyone is up there in the sky looking out for kids who look like him.
It’s heavy, heavy, heady stuff, but couched in such sonic experimentation that hip-hop heads seem firmly split down the middle about whether or not it represents a precipitous change in the rap status quo or just too weird to digest. Well, I would argue it’s both. Sometimes, something is just too new and there’s no frame of reference for it. When Common released Electric Circus in 2002, it seemed like hip-hop as a whole was at a loss as to how to process its then-bizarre, futuristic blend of jazz, funk, soul, and rap, and it took the sample-heavy brilliance of Kanye West to revive the Chicago stalwart’s career with 2005’s Be. Then, in 2015, more than ten years after Electric Circus was deemed too “out there” to function in the modern rap landscape, Kendrick Lamar dropped To Pimp A Butterfly and blew us all away.
Vince Staples is standing in a similar spot to Common in ’02. Many rap aficionados claim not to understand, and many are at a loss as to how to bring them along to seeing the bigger picture. The difference is, Common never got that Grammy nod for his ambition and his vision (at least, not until way later). However, we’re living in a post-Butterfly world. Kendrick Lamar proved that left-field, experimental rap can function in both the critical and commercial realms, and has the hardware to back it up. A Grammy nomination alone would do wonders toward validating Vince Staples’ afro-futurist vision of post-gangsta rap, if only by exposing it to more listeners than Big Fish Theory’s limited release allowed.
A win itself would hit fast-forward on the process; seeing an experimental rap album of Big Fish Theory’s caliber receive one of the most prestigious awards in music has the potential to unlock similar experimental proclivities in more hip-hop artists, who are being anchored by the current sounds of the Hot 100, and broaden the horizons of listeners tired of being spoon-fed the same, reheated beats and scouring Soundcloud for the Next Big Thing only to resignedly settle for more of the murky, drugged-out same.
But even if Vince doesn’t get there, I wouldn’t worry. Hip-hop has already outgrown its current bowl and it’s time for it to take a swim in deeper waters. Vince created a new wave, and it will find its way to shore, whether it takes two years or ten.
Big Fish Theory is out now via Def Jam Records. Get it here.