“Get the fuck off my dick” were just about the last words most of us had heard from Vince Staples. The track in question (which we previously deemed as a “stroke of genius”) was part of a GoFundMe campaign the Long Beach, California rapper launched back in March 2018 to raise $2 million to bankroll his early retirement. It was a sardonic bluff of first class trolling that was part prank, part double dare to his haters, that challenged if they’d really heard enough of him then he’d gladly STFU if they fronted the dollar to buy his silence. “Get off of my dick or fund my lifestyle,” Staples says in the campaign video. “The choice is yours.” The lesson: don’t troll a troll because you will get your ass whipped.
Thankfully Staples hasn’t retired and for his next trick has delivered his third album, FM!. Presented as if you’re cruising through terrestrial stations listening to successive bangers on the actual radio, it’s an album full of rowdy crowd pleasers that come with a dark undercurrent. Despite the fact that in the accompanying press release Staples himself insists that “’FM!’ is a project created by Vince Staples that contains 22 minutes of only music. No concepts, no elaborate schemes, just music. Because nowadays, who needs more bullshit?” However, this isn’t quite the case. Instead, it can be perceived as more of an ambitious concept album. It’s worth taking a moment to appreciate the way Staples uses Def Jam as a platform to continually release avant-garde rap.
FM! is essentially an ode to Staples’ hometown of Long Beach (see the video for lead single “FUN!”) that opens with a skit voiced by famed LA radio host Big Boy hyping the West Coast summer, before Staples interjects to burst the bubble. At first glance, FM! is the sound of summer on fleek, but the woozy and relentless high octane tracks and their arcade zing are a facade for something much grittier.
Unlike the familiar Hollywood portrayals of LA’s darkheart found in the work of auteurs like David Lynch, Staples serves up an alternative shadowy narrative that walks a fine line between fairytale and nightmare. His version of LA is electric with summertime wilding, a frenetic cautionary tale of how the heat can conjure up collective waves of violence and crime; while lines like “Party til the sun or the guns come out,” are a mood that has more in common with the volatile mania of Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo & Juliet than any pristine sun-drenched beach side cliché version of LA you might have been sold.
Beneath the surface level hype of tracks like “FUN!” with it’s bleep bloop Neptunes-style production and crowd chants, there’s a far bleaker narrative that’s hit home when you realise the the track’s title stands for something less upbeat than how you originally read it (“We don’t give a fuck ’bout nothin’ / We just wanna have fun”). “FUN!,” like much of FM!, drops frank references to Staples’ gangbanger past—having spent his teen years running with a Crip gang—and this real talk lyrical content works as a powerful counterpoint to the records overall turnt-up sound.
Production duties on the 11-track FM! mostly fall to Kenny Beats, having returned from the EDM DJing wilderness in 2018 to work on notable records for Rico Nasty, Key!, 03 Greedo and Staples. Beats work is complemented by three cuts from Hagler, who scored half of Staples’ Hell Can Wait EP in 2014, and a gloomy guest vocal from Kehlani on “Tweakin.” It’s a slight turn from the dark, future-thinking electronics of Staples’ previous album Big Fish Theory which enlisted the likes of Justin Vernon and SOPHIE as producers, but the gloomy, rapid pace riot of FM! is an extremely focused beast and Staples’ flow is melodic as hell, in fact it pops. In Staples’ own words: “Just a young black man with a backbone.”