It was cute when Vince Staples first announced Big Fish Theory. His second album proper was heralded by “The Life Aquatic” Tour, a nod to the eponymous Wes Anderson film complete with kitschy, themed artwork and a bouncy song called “BagBak.” This was followed by a couple more singles, one of which was exceedingly good. But now that it is has arrived, it has become clear that none of this build-up could have possibly prepared us for the final product; Big Fish Theory is nothing short of a pure masterpiece, effectively staking Staples’ claim as one of the most essential rappers in the game.
You would be forgiven if this comes as something of a surprise, as Staples’ rise has been both swift and subtle. Since releasing his polished debut, the Hell Can Wait EP, in 2014, he has had a major project released in every year since. Summertime ’06 was a sprawling double LP that transposed Staples’ acerbic flow onto fierce, unwavering critiques of both his upbringing and society as a whole. It rightfully earned a glowing critical appraisal upon its release, as did last year’s Prima Donna EP, which saw him experimenting with a hugely varied palette of beats, thanks to production work from the likes of James Blake. And all of this before the Long Beach rapper’s 24th birthday.
And though in many ways Big Fish Theory is a natural next-step in Staples’ evolution, it functions first and most effectively as the opposite; as a radical thrust outward into uncharted territory. His previous works were all marked by his potent rhymes, off-kilter, jarring production and rapid-fire delivery, elements that are all still on display here. Yet those very elements have been amped up to a degree that renders their former characteristics unrecognizable—this is the Staples sound pumped full of amphetamines and let loose in the club, frantically turning the speakers up past 11.
Nowhere is this more evident than on the album’s title single “Big Fish.” Where previous singles like “Norf Norf” displayed a proclivity for an upbeat, danceable quality, “Big Fish” is a downright party, made more robust with a massively catchy hook courtesy of Juicy J. Singalong choruses aside, Staples lets loose a flow here that is unmatched in his back catalogue. It is simultaneously tightly calibrated and breathlessly freeform; his rhymes are precisely laden only to be immediately shoved aside to make room for even more bars.
The breakneck pace of his delivery sets the tone for the record as a whole; 12 tracks are shuffled through at clipped pace, with the whole enterprise clocking in at under 40 minutes. This inevitably plays to Staples’ strengths, as it serves to further highlight just how many ideas, genres, and stylistic flourishes he can pack into what feels like an impossible constraint without sacrificing an ounce of cohesion.
The first half of this album alone, for instance, is a breathtaking carousel of Staples’ now razor-sharp sonic sensibilities. Album opener “Crabs in a Bucket” starts out as frantic house jam, only to shift midway into a fuzzed-out caterwaul of industrial noise thanks to a production job from Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon. This flows smoothly into “Big Fish,” Staples’ first real stab at a radio-ready single, before we’re next hit with a jazz-inflected interlude and an acid-housey rave-off that features vocals from Gorillaz’ Damon Albarn.
“745,” arriving shortly after, is the most prime example of Staples’ ability to twist and subvert genre conventions as if they were made of clay. The track employs a warped version of the iconic, electro G-funk bass-line, as if someone has unearthed a crate of Dr. Dre demo-tapes from the bottom of the ocean floor. “Adam, Eve, apple tree / watch out for the snakes baby,” Staples drawls, warning of the trappings of fame and celebrity over a beat that is an homage to both his upbringing and the rap dreams of old; a once shining ideal now soured.
If the first half of the album reflects a diverse array of styles, the latter half uproots the notion of styles altogether. There is truly nothing in the world that sounds like the kind of hip-hop Staples conjures here. Much of this quality can be attributed to the squadron of electronic producers he has assembled to bring these otherworldly visions to life, a group that can count Flume, GTA and SOPHIE among its ranks. And while all work together to produce a seamless whole, Staples’ partnership with SOPHIE is transcendent, an unholy union between rapper and producer that has truly embodied Staples’ numerous descriptions of this album as his “idea of Afrofuturism.”
SOPHIE, one of the impresarios behind the influential label PC Music, leaves his prints on two tracks that act as the towering pinnacles of Big Fish Theory‘s sonic innovation. The first, “Yeah Right,” is a call-and-response war chant that pits Staples venomously rapping about the state of the industry against a SOPHIE beat that is a veritable ticking time bomb. A series of guttural, inhuman wails trail behind each line, turning an already incisive commentary into an unnerving, mechanical behemoth. And just when you think it can’t get any bigger, Kendrick Lamar steps in for a verse.
The second SOPHIE-produced track is the A$AP Rocky-featuring “SAMO,” which is the closest thing to an actual nightmare Staples has ever released. The beat utilizes a synth that resembles the whining of a buzz saw, undercut with a slurred bass-line that unhealthily oozes, like an overripe fruit. “Never blow it on chains, rather blow my fuckin’ brain” Staples raps in dissection of his life of luxury. The exploratory leap taken in “SAMO” cannot be stressed enough; not since Kanye West’s Yeezus has a rapper deployed beats from the furthest stretches of the electronic avant-garde and fit it so faultlessly into their own sound.
Big Fish Theory is a triumph for Staples; to borrow a cliché, it is the album he was born to make. But a key ingredient in its success lies in its immediacy. This record, more than any other hip-hop release in the past year (well, except for Kendrick), reflects the times in which it was written. This is rap at its most hedonistic, providing beats that would make a wallflower’s booty go frenetic in the club, but it is also rap at its most bleak, paranoiac and boundary-pushing. This is the sound of rap in 2017, and it may indeed chart the course of the genre’s future. Staples is one of the biggest fishes in the pond, and keeping pace with this one won’t be so easy.
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