Hip-hop has not heard anything like Big Fish Theory, and that’s exactly why hip-hop needed Vince Staples to make it. Big Fish is Vince’s take on afro-futurism, all electronic blats and blips, with his signature ruminations about gang life, finally making money, and what it means to be Black in America rapped over the top.
Rap music itself is in a funny place right now; it wants to hold onto some semblance of the “classics” that have defined the genre in the ’90s, while glossing over its missteps in the ’00s, and still embracing future sounds. Heads have begun holding every rapper to some impossible standard of keeping it real, paying homage to the greats of the past, while still demanding freshness, originality, and creativity.
Vince Staples doesn’t have any use for any of it. He’s not a “hip-hop head” by his own description. Instead, he is someone who views rap as an avenue to talk about the everyday aspects of his life, and get paid for doing so. To that end, Big Fish spends zero time contemplating the “state of hip-hop” or who the dopest rapper is.
What it does do, however, is bend and on occasion outright break the unstated “rules” of the genre, tossing out boom-bap and trap alike in favor of house-influenced beats that somehow still sound every bit as ominous and menacing as the pre-apocalypse production on Summertime ‘06. While that album made bombed-out percussion into the primary instrument, stripping away melody to create a soundscape as threatening and sinister as a late night walk through Ramona Park, and Prima Donna EP continued to create in that same lane, adding abrasive hard, rock guitars on the likes of “Smile,” Big Fish Theory doesn’t do a sonic 180 so much as it takes a hard left from the expected evolution of that Summertime sound. Then, it kicks its engines to warp factor 9. Big Fish doesn’t sound like what anyone would have thought the follow-up to Summertime or Prima Donna would sound like. If those previous efforts were hood horror movies, the new project is the gang-bang equivalent of Blade Runner or Akira.
Remember that game ‘Punch-Out!!’? Remember how the computer-controlled boxers used to do little dances to telegraph their punches and combos so the player could defend them and counter? When “Party People” came on at the listening party for Vince Staples’ new album, Big Fish Theory earlier this week, I almost did a version of that. It was the first time hearing a song ever made me want to punch someone, but do an elaborate crip walk routine first. Staples has perfectly synthesized the fight music aesthetic of gangsta rap with upbeat, futurist EDM.
The lead single, “Big Fish,” operates in the same vein, with Vince promising to pull up at an enemy’s mama’s house over a pulsing four-on-the-floor beat that wouldn’t be totally out of place at an EDM rave. The subject matter remains the same: North Side Long Beach, Crippin’, and making it out of poverty, but over the sort of beats that sound like something off of the Blade 2 soundtrack, which was pretty ahead of its time and out there sounding when it dropped. But Big Fish isn’t a gimmick on a soundtrack, mashing up EDM producers with underground rappers, it’s the direct result of one artist’s singular vision.
“Bagbak” and “Rain Comes Down” are two more singles that demonstrate Vince’s new direction; they sound somehow dark and somber, even as the bpms hit an acceleration that most rappers wouldn’t be able to touch without doing three months of cardio first. Staples’ technical skills as a rapper become more pronounced in contrast; it takes an uncommonly skilled lyricist to be able to find the pockets in this weird, glitchy landscape. It’s all the more incredible taking his asthma into consideration, yet he sounds just as comfortable over Zach Sekoff’s frenzied synths on “Rain Comes Down” as GURU ever did on DJ Premier’s jazz samples and breakbeats.
Basically, the production throughout Big Fish Theory sounds like a dystopian, cyberpunk carnival being thrown in the Long Beach Carmelitos Projects, and this same blunt force technicolor carries over into the lyrics, thanks to Vince’s tendency toward off-the-cuff, baleful cynicism and matter-of-fact, plainspoken delivery of threats like “If I pull up with my guns drawn, run, I make it bang,” on “SAMO.” When the tracks take a downturn in tempo, he’s right there with it, deftly switching from his high energy yelp of a flow, to a slurry singsong that allows him to mournfully wonder, “If I die today / Would you even know I existed? / Would you see my face?” on “Ramona Park Is Yankee Stadium,” a rare moment of genuine vulnerability.
It’d be easy to say that Vince is ahead of his time, but that’s not quite right. He’s very of his time; he took a look around at what 90% of the rap game was doing and decided to do something different. It’s deliberate, but not forced, a move on Vince’s part that tells us that he’s not looking forward to the future, he’s doing his own thing right now, and if that’s the future, so much the better for him. He’s still going to be Black, still going to be repping Long Beach to the fullest, and still not going to be too worried about setting trends — which is exactly why he’ll continue to set them.
Big Fish Theory is out now. Get it here.