Our Theory on Vince Staples’ ‘Big Fish Theory’ Album
Vince Staples’ critically acclaimed debut album is an abstract vignette of moments inspired by the chaotic events of his adolescent past. The title, Summertime ‘06, tells the time and year of when the stories unfolded, one of the hottest summers of his life. There’s a vividness to his storytelling, lyrically the music is a time machine to the actions as he describes them―the angst, madness and intensity of what his life was like. The album may begin with the sound of water and seagulls, but the album doesn't truly begin until a gunshot rings out.
Prima Donna, the seven-track follow up, was another abstract adventure, but one that followed a narrative based on a more present-day Vince. It’s the story of a popular rapper who went from rags to riches, but the lavishness of his outward life didn’t bring solace from the demons who attacked from within. The struggle of adjusting is a reminder there's no guidebook to handle success and fame. Suicide is committed in the first song, and the EP slowly take listeners backward from riches to rags―the genius of Prima Donna is how reversing the tracklisting will tell his tale from rags to riches.
Vince's attention to detail is why the concept album medium is perfect for a wordsmith who is able to crafts worlds to live within; songs that are meant to complete a picture, instead of songs that are meant to stand alone. A prima donna is defined as, “a temperamental person; a person who takes adulation and privileged treatment as a right and reacts with petulance to criticism or inconvenience.” In many ways, it fits the description of a diva. Vince’s enlarged head on the EP's cover could represent the size of a rapper’s ego after reaching a certain level of fame, or a way to personify all that is weighing on his mind. Unlike Summertime ‘06, there’s no telling whether Prima Donna represented Vince’s psyche, or if it was simply a project embodying the feeling of going crazy during intoxicating popularity.
Titles are revealing, they give off a first impression of the music to come. Both Summertime ‘06 and Prima Donna personify the projects; both say a lot and very little. I believe this is intentional, Vince’s concepts are all-encompassing, and that includes album art and album titles.
Recently, it was revealed that the title of Vince’s next album is Big Fish Theory. Kyle Kramer, the Vice journalist who conducted the interview with Vince, described the album’s idea as, “Conflicting expectations, mixing, for instance, ‘holy water with the Voss.'” I have no idea what mixing Voss and holy water means, but it appears that Vince's next album continues creating in the abstract that will connect to a much bigger picture.
Scientifically, the Big Fish Theory is a concept that states the universe is a fish—a big fish. It explores the infinite size of the universe and the theory that there’s always a bigger fish in the pond/ocean/water. This idea is rooted in the belief that there will always be a bigger fish for a fisherman to catch, and since there’s always one bigger, it creates a never-ending chain of infinity, like our universe. Simply put, the universe is the biggest fish, one that cannot be caught because it is infinite.
It’s an interesting theory, one that would be rather difficult to translate into a rap album. Who is the universe? Who is the big fish? If Vince is basing his album’s concept around the scientific meaning, I believe it’s coming to terms with the fact that there will always be someone bigger than you. You might be the big fish for a moment, but the oceans are full, and it's only a matter of time until a bigger one reaches the surface. Such an angle could connect with “conflicting expectations,” but also with a conflicting ego―it’s a full-time job trying not to fall into your own bubble of hype. To be famous is to reach the point of being a big fish in a universe infatuated with celebrities, and Vince is becoming a bigger entity with every release, quietly a growing fish in a pond that is becoming smaller and smaller.
"Any fisherman will tell you that although you may catch big fish in your time, there is always one slightly bigger. If there is always a bigger fish than one you caught, there must logically be one bigger than the one bigger than the one you caught. And if there is a bigger fish than the bigger one than the one you caught, there must be a bigger fish than the bigger one than the one bigger than the one you caught.
As you can see, the argument goes on forever...to INFINITY in fact.
And if the bigger fish gets bigger and bigger all the way to infinity, logically, there must be a fish that is INFINITELY large." - What is the Big Fish Theory?
There’s also the big-fish-little-pond effect as a framing of the album. Herbert W. Marsh and John W. Parker came up with the concept back in 1984―basically, they believe it’s better to be a big fish in a small pond than a small fish in a big pond. A gifted student would shine brighter in regular classes than a gifted student paired with only other gifted individuals. Rap is an interesting medium because smarter individuals can be accused of dumbing down their content to capture widespread attention. Simpler songs tend to have a bigger impact, an earthquake compared to a weaker aftershock.
Think of how Lupe’s most commercially successful album is Lasers, arguably the worst, most watered-down album in his catalog. Certain ideas and ideals that are well-received in rap aren’t the most positive and optimistic, and Vince could be at a crossroads about the kind of artist he wants to stand as. He’s lived a life others simply portray and glorify, how does it affect what he makes? Does he feel people love his music, or what the music illustrates? The video of “Señorita” is still a chilling theme of white voyeurism in hip-hop. Vince doesn’t seem to be the type to feel guilty about being a big fish, but what if he’s bothered by the pond he’s swimming in?
Vince is currently on tour called The Life Aquatic Tour―an aquatic-themed tour for an aquatic-themed album. The seeds have already been planted. Speaking of water, since Vince hails from Long Beach, it’s possible Big Fish Theory is about returning home after becoming a fairly successful rapper. Long Beach has had big fish like Snoop Dogg, Nate Dogg and Warren G—legends—but Vince is one of the most-known new artists to hail from the area. Home is important to him, the proof is in his music and his actions as a figure in the community.
If Summertime ‘06 was based on his past, Big Fish Theory could give people a glimpse into his actual present―the same way TPAB follows GKMC. If you listen to “BagBak,” the rumored first single touches on a range of topics―systemic oppression, racial prejudice, police profiling―but the song ends with Vince announcing, “we on now,” and that everyone from the 1% to the president can "suck our dick." It’s a triumphant boast, a cry of upliftment for people of color. Vince doesn’t fear the times but is screaming that our time is now.
There’s a small interlude of a clip saying, "They found it, depth close to 3,230 feet, a deep dive, but within acceptable range.” It’s worth noting that 3230 Poppy Street is the address where Vince used to live during the Summertime ‘06 era. There's an interesting contrast between his home and deep diving 3,230 feet under sea level; I wonder which one is more dangerous.
“The next Bill Gates can be on Section 8 up in the projects,” is a line that stuck out to me. Vince is able to articulate the brilliance of someone who comes from a circumstance of poverty, but geniuses can be born and raised in the most strenuous of environments. “BigBak” doesn’t reveal much insight into a narrative, but it is Black and proud, a theme that you should expect to be recurring throughout.
Vince has been described as nihilistic; the way he speaks about the world comes with a sense of dreaded meaninglessness. Nihilism and the Big Fish Theory play an interesting contrast off each other―seeing the universe as this infinite-sized fish can make you feel small and insignificant―just another Nemo in an oversized fishbowl. In that sense, the scientific theory connects with the personality of Vince Staples. I have a feeling that the subject will be similar to an ocean―shallow enough to stand in but only when you move deeper do you get into the infinite depths of the water.
Vince has never been complicated, he’s straightforward and blunt by nature, but artistically abstract when it comes to putting full projects together. Big Fish Theory could very well be Vince’s most philosophical album, one that will cause us to think long after the music ends. Regardless of whether it is his mission, he is one of this generation's most profound rappers, and when he speaks, people listen.
By Yoh, aka Aquaman Yoh, aka @Yoh31.
Photo Credit: Def Jam