Review: Vince Staples – Big Fish Theory

Vince Staples is back with his 2nd full-length album Big Fish Theory, the follow-up to his excellent 2015 debut Summertime ’06. The release was much anticipated seeing as how his debut delivered some pretty great music with killer rapping and great production (not to mention the release of an EP last year to keep his name in the spotlight). With Big Fish Theory, Vince continues his winning streak, delivering another set of excellent forward-thinking hip hop songs that show why he’s one of the best rappers in the game right now.

The album opens on some very familiar territory with “Crabs In a Bucket”, as the listener’s enveloped by the sounds of the beach with whirling breezes and chirping birds, all mixed in with skittering percussion and glitched vocals. It’s a natural extension of his style on his last album, but pushed into more dramatic and cinematic territory. Vince’s skills on the mic are on point in this introduction, spitting bars about trying to enjoy life and his time in the spotlight while knowing the system does what it can to keep him and his people down at every turn. The line about crabs previously appeared in his song “Senorita” and it works along the rest of the lyrics about his own uncertainty in trying to climb out of the hell he’s been stuck in. This song sets the tone perfectly for the rest of the album, not just in its lyrics and flow but also the production.

Much of what makes Vince’s beats work are still in place here, from the prominent moody R&B influences to the loud thumping bass from track to track, but these are both pushed even further than ever before. One of the more prominent examples of the R&B influence is on “Alyssa Interlude”, an incredibly depressing track about yearning for a lost love that is bolstered not only by a more subdued performance from Vince, but also lyrical references to The Temptations and sampling an interview from one of his biggest inspirations: the late Amy Winehouse. At times, the song even feels like something that would have been written by Earl Sweatshirt in its melancholic nihilism. Similarly, the track “745” has a great beat from producer Jimmy Edgar, with a low-key but funky bass line accentuating Vince’s lyrics about his hopeless pursuit of finding love in a world that doesn’t seem to want him to find it, relying on allusions to God and the creation of Adam and Eve to drive home his own nihilistic views (“This thing called love real hard for me, this thing called love is a God to me”). The album closer “Rain Come Down” drives the point home with another moody descending bassline and great chorus courtesy of Ty Dolla $ign as Vince laments on the horrible realities of life in Long Beach, especially the unreliability of the police and the gang violence of the area.

On the other end of the spectrum, when the album decides to go for bangers, those bangers go absolutely hard. The track “Love Can Be…” contains bits of the R&B influence courtesy of guest vocals from Ray J, Kilo Kish, and Gorillaz mastermind Damon Albarn, but the meat of the song is a loud reverberating bassline and skittering drum pattern courtesy of production duo GTA (it almost kind of sounds like if Lord RAJA produced a DAWN track). Vince and Kilo’s performances play off of each other pretty well, as the first verse is Kilo acting as a woman who’s unsubtly leading Vince on, with Vince counteracting by trying to avoid, as he puts it, “baby mama drama on the TMZ”. Continuing on the theme of trying to enjoy life despite all of life’s bullshit, “Party People” has another thumping bassline with skittering footwork-esque clattering percussion crafting yet another grooving banger of a beat, as Vince is trying to party and have a good time, but his own anxieties keep getting in the way (“How I’m supposed to have a good time when death and destruction’s all I see?”). The song that best surmises the ideas and motifs of the album is the lead single “BagBak”, with its driving trap beat and hype-inducing warbled bass as Vince delivers some of the best bars of his career so far. He starts from hitting on a potential future lover to hoping that racial profiling doesn’t end up killing him, going into his usual anti-government views and desire for more black people in positions of power (“We need Tamikas and Shaniquas in that Oval Office”/”The next Bill Gates could be in Section 8 up in the projects”), and ending with the massively anthemic declaration of “Tell the one percent to suck a dick because we on now”. With how much the beat kills and just how on-point the lyrics and flow are, this is easily my new favorite Vince Staples track. It’s just an infinitely replayable BANGER of a track. If there’s any track that comes close to it as well, it would definitely be “Yeah Right”, with the loudest bass on the record (seriously, you *will* feel this through your speakers), and an excellent guest verse from none other than Kung Fu Kenny himself: Kendrick Lamar.

Vince Staples knocks it out of the park yet again with a killer collection of forward-thinking rap tunes that are unlike anything you’ll likely hear all year. His bars and skills on the mic are still as in-your-face and rebellious as ever, his lyrical strengths are just as on point as ever, and the experimentation in songwriting and production goes above and beyond in creating some truly memorable tunes. Never underestimate the Norf Norf soldier.

Verdict: Buy it. It may be 2017, but Vince is clearly living in 3017. 

Big Fish Theory is available from Def Jam Records on CD, limited vinyl, digital download (iTunes, Amazon Music, etc.) and streaming services

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