Vince Staples has made no attempts to please anyone in this industry.
The last time his actions were motivated by adoring fans was the release of his first mixtape, Shyne Coldchain Vol 1. It was a necessary nudge, the encouragement from Odd Future’s cult allowed a world outside of their audience to see the quiet affiliate who appeared on Earl’s self-titled debut. Acclaim surrounded him, and applause for his ice cold candor in a world engulfed in hellish fire.
The minimalistic production was perfect for a storyteller with such brutal imagery. Instead of trying to recapture the feeling that brought him prosperity and notarization, Vince has vehemently fought against his past offerings both verbally and artistically. He doesn’t run from his past but rejects its existence, a rare circumstance in a business where it's common for an artist to cling and attempt to repurpose classic material.
Requests for Vince to retreat back to the sound of his Genesis have been made since Summertime ‘06. His lyricism hasn’t drastically changed, though, I’d argue he’s a better emcee with an improved sense of vocal cadence, lyrical tricks and song construction. The beats, however, took a sonic departure from Gotham bleakness and were replaced by a more electronic color. The basslines got thicker, percussion became schizophrenic, and the music was injected with a festive bounce one is likely to associate with twirling glowsticks and molly sweat. Summertime ‘06 is an excellent debut, Prima Donna is a good EP, but in both cases, there have been complaints about the palette Vince chose to rap upon. One of the best and brightest rappers of our time, but constant criticism surrounds his beat selections.
Vince could care less. Approval isn’t what he’s searching for. Want the old Vince? Download his old mixtapes.
Describing his new album, Big Fish Theory, as Afrofuturism and later stating it was done in jest is the kind of humor Vince Staples would find hilarious. Yet, considering the fact that his music has transformed more times than Frieza on Namek, it wouldn’t be a surprise if he found inspiration in the world Sun Ra built. The great lengths he has gone to keep the album's producers secret—in an email to DJBooth, Def Jam stated, "we aren't releasing credits for this album"—also give a sense that he’s hiding the architects in an attempt to conceal the production direction. He wants no preconceived notions; for listeners to walk into this project with no idea what to expect. There’s been no disclosure about Big Fish Theory's deeper concept, no feature announcements, and little knowledge of what influenced his sophomore effort.
Creating music has become like an art gallery for Vince. He wants fans to enter, view, and leave with their own perception. It’s exciting not knowing what awaits. In Vince I trust.
In usual 1-Listen fashion, the rules are the same: no skipping, no fast-forwarding, no rewinding and no stopping. Each song will receive my gut reaction from start to finish.
1. "Crabs In A Bucket" ft. Kilo Kish
Very soft piano keys. There's a soft, gentle breeze. A sound of a robot tweaking, like a disturbance. It’s an interesting build-up. Vocals distorted and chopped. A mood is being set but Vince's intros tend to be mood-setters. I feel anxious but not on the edge of my seat. VINCE! Just a tease. He departed with the quickness. He’s back. A nice bounce. These drums are chopstick-thin. There’s a slight bounce, a feeling that’s a bit more house-inspired. The production feels like flying cars in Tokyo. Finding myself nostalgically going back to when Kanye dropped “Stronger.” That single made you feel like the future was right outside. Vince is sliding down the beat like his words are atop a snowboard. “Got a lot of problems I haven’t let go yet.” Crazy bassline. The beat is a full-on Transformer now. I like this a lot. Vince's departure and the beat are building like the track is about to shoot you into another universe. Dance Dance Revolution drums and Kilo Kish vocals. This is a groove if you wanted to dance with extraterrestrials. Fist pumping with tentacles. Kilo Kish makes me want to climb into a bed of marshmallows and dream about a better world.
2. "Big Fish" ft. Juicy J
That first snare KICKS. I love this build-up. Insane bass, I felt lifted from my chair when it dropped. This Juicy J hook is a sample, right? It has the “Senorita” effect. The way Vince remixes modern artists into hooks is genius. Vince doing this hook wouldn't work but Juicy J is perfect. Is there any beat that Vince can’t rap over? He has this unwavering focus that comes off natural. He doesn’t miss a single beat, the kind of emcee that could rhyme in hell without breaking a sweat. I wish this single was bigger, I wouldn’t mind going to the club and hearing this. There's nothing quite like it. This song is a good medium with what old fans desire and the forward-thinking futurist who refuses to make the same song twice. We need a Stomp The Yard 3 so this song can be in the movie. Someone tell BET and Irv Gotti to bring back You Got Served for this new Vince album. I like this record a lot, adding to my Juicy J Can’t playlist.
3. "Alyssa Interlude"
Musically, I see Vince is taking more risks. Sounds like feet pattering. A woman’s voice. Spoken word style. She’s stuttering a bit. She has an interesting accent, I like her voice. The beat surrounding her seems to be clashing but it also creates an atmosphere. I feel like I’m not in the future enough to fully appreciate this album. Actually, man, this beat is fire. Very moody. Something I think James Blake would make during a late night session when the world is asleep. Singing Vince. I’m a fan of these records, sort of like “Summertime” from Summertime ‘06. Who would have thought cold-blooded, emotionless Vince would have records with so much feeling behind them? Those early mixtapes he had the heart and vocal tone of a dangerous man and now he’s making songs like this. Progress. Still monotone as ever. Who is this voice? Very old school and soulful. Definitely a sample, takes me back to the days of David Ruffin. So much passion. Aww, it’s over.
4. "Love Can Be..." ft. Damon Albarn, Kilo Kish & Ray J
Vinyl warmth. I wonder what the sample budget was for this album. Rather experimental. We are definitely still in the future. A future dance club. A woman’s voice, is that Kilo? Sounds like her but also with a little more attitude. Vince has a thing for finding songstresses with candy-coated vocals. I don’t know about this beat. It’s just not hitting me that hard. Vince just arrived talking about crashing a sports car. I’m starting to get a strong Kanye “Stronger” vibe from this album. Actually, this might be more in vain of Yeezus. The distortion, Vince’s flow, and the unorthodox palette takes you back to when Kanye was fusing music. Oh my, this second verse. The song just came alive. Lyricism doesn’t feel like a focus but he’s flexing the muscles. “Never let a bitch Lil Bow Wow me.” Okay, Vince snapping. I don’t know exactly what direction this album is going in but we aren’t in modern times. We have left Earth, left the trap era, and have entered somewhere completely unknown. Vince crafted something far more avant-garde than even I expected.
Every song thus far sounds like it could exist in the same clubs where you'd find Elroy Jetson popping ecstasy. Tipsy in the club getting twerk from Judy Jetson music. Wait, the bass just dropped and THIS IS HARD! That groovy bass. Vince's slow flow is enticing. He’s talking about all the things he wanted in his life. Oh yeah, this is an early favorite. “
All my life pretty woman have told me lies
,” this line alone should be used in
Love & Hip-Hop Hawaii
. I have to admire how much Vince has evolved. His ability to construct songs—actual songs—has gone so far beyond the mixtapes where his raps didn’t have hooks. Breakdown! I love those twinkling keys. Cruise around the city at night music. Ridiculous bassline. No complaints. This is a keeper. Another strong breakdown. Throwing the subtleness off into a darker dystopia.
6. "Ramona Park Is Yankee Stadium"
There’s rainfall. Taxis. Traffic. Vince's voice. He’s singing about New York. Rainstorm. A mention of death. Vince's signature seagulls. Just an interlude. A woman said gunshot. I wonder if this is a homage to "Romana Park Legend."
7. "Yeah Right" ft. Kendrick Lamar
Vince with the taunting, childish hook. The bassline just arrived from Hades with an angel's head in his hand. DESTRUCTIVE. Vince making a song about fame and trying to keep it all together. I think he has a few songs that are like internal monologues with himself. This bass is menacing, a monster truck. Second verse begins with perspective about pretty women. Man if my head could spin around my neck it would right now. A woman’s voice. Sounds like she came for a Weeknd session and accidentally laid down vocals for Vince. It’s cool, I guess. Build up. CORNROW KENNY! WE FINALLY GOT THE VINCE AND KENDRICK COLLAB THANK THE GODS. I'VE BEEN WAITING ON THIS MY WHOLE ADULT LIFE. Oh my god. This flow is like watching a lion do a cartwheel on a tightrope. NASTY. FedEx name drop. He’s in the pocket of this monstrous bassline. Kendrick is doing acrobatics, someone call Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. Wait, no, they went out of business, someone call the Olympics. It’s almost like people hire Kendrick just to see how many different ways he can torch a beat. NASTY! This is what God feels like.
Deep chords. Progressing. Building. Still thinking about that Kendrick verse. Okay, something weird is happening. Increased in speed. This is probably the highest tempo of a Vince song ever. It’s definitely kick your feet like they’re on fire music. I don't know how much fun I would have in the club if this came on, though. You have to hit all those moves in the Goth gif. I always feel weird about these beats until he starts rapping. Almost like his presence brings a level of comfort. This is why Rick Ross was credited. “Hold Me Back” is the hook. “Where the fuck is my VMA?” Yo, Vince deserves one. Visually he’s been killing it for years. This third verse swift flow is INSANE. I don’t really like the beat but man he’s treating each verse like he’s a lightning bolt thrown to earth. The fourth verse was even better than the last. Jesus, this beat is starting to pull me in. Kilo Kish has returned for another vocal performance. Over so soon.
9. "Samo" ft. A$AP Rocky
I always want a little bit more from Kilo, it's never enough. This is dark. These drums are like beer bottles being clanged together. Taunting. Voice with an interesting vocal inflection. Like he’s about to crack one of those beer bottles over a head. Not just one but all the beer bottles. This is disgusting. Shyne Coldchain levels of chilling. "I'm the ODB of the OPB." We have to talk about these flows. Performance-wise, Vince is always on. He knows exactly how to deliver each line for the hardest effect. This second verse is a problem. Who made this beat!? It’s all coexisting like steak and lobster. I wouldn’t walk down a dark alley while this played. The kind of beat that Mobb Deep would beat people up to. Wait. I thought A$AP Rocky was about to come for necks. Songs aren't long, Vince doesn't overstay his welcome.
10. "Party People"
Vince gives us no idea where each song will take you. This is an Odyssey project that Homer would be envious of. Getting “Norf Norf” flow vibes. Minimalistic production and the bass just kicked the door down. Another dance song that doesn’t feel like a dance song. “Party People” can only be described as actual panic at the disco. It's like the roof actually caught on fire and the party decided to dance while it burned. I can’t wait to dissect this album. It’s definitely focused on fame and how his life has entered into a new pool. How can Vince make music for the club that is equally dark? I don’t know if I should be worried about the world burning or get my groove on. Have Vince and Pharrell linked yet? I feel like they should. All this unorthodox production and no Neptunes music? Travesty.
I hate this instrumental. It always makes me feel as if Optimus Prime left his charger at home and his cell started to power down. No one wants to hear a robot slowly die but when Vince comes in the song is amazing. If it wasn’t for the beat and a mid hook, this song would be EXCELLENT. No other rapper could take this sound and tap dance with ease. I’ll skip this one but I won’t delete it solely for the lyric, “The next Bill Gates can be on Section 8 up in the projects.” How can you not love a rapper with bars like this??? Breakdown. “Clap your hands if the police ever profiled,” this album really might be Afrofuturism. The pro-blackness and the experimental soundscape makes for an interesting case. To be honest, I don’t know much about the genre but I feel like those two elements are in it’s DNA.
12. "Rain Come Down" ft. Ty Dolla $ign
I really like the bass. Without trying this album gives you a lot at once. Ty Dolla! He might be the most consistent, underrated hook performer. I can’t think of a bad Dolla $ hook. He can give you both that smooth R&B and that heart-touching soul. Production feels… off. Like it got stuck in the uploading phase. A skeleton that needs a bit more meat. Yeah, sorry, the production kills this track for me. Maybe it will grow on me. It hits that interesting middle where the song isn’t bad but doesn’t appease your ears. This closing bassline is love, hope and happiness. Sing it, Ty. Sing it. If this closing section was the entire song I would be crying in the club.
I’m trying to recall the exact feeling of my first time hearing “Stronger.” I referenced the song throughout the review, and I couldn’t shake the feeling that Vince's recent production choices felt like offsprings of Kanye’s Graduation single. Submerged in an electronic pool, driven by a Daft Punk sample, it was a Kanye I didn’t recognize compared to what we heard on College Dropout and Late Registration. He was still rapping; the bars flowed as if the soul samples were still underneath his vocals. That’s what Kanye did, he took daring risks without asking for permission. Graduation only has one “Stronger,” while Big Fish Theory creates an entire sonic world built upon obscure, electronic, techno and house grooves. Vince doesn’t blend genres, it’s most like he manipulates sound to his liking. The rapping is far from a problem, but it’s what he's rapping over that begs the question: Will a hip-hop audience care for this?
Drawing a connection to Kanye feels the most natural. He found what we liked and threw it away like a failed idea. Big Fish Theory tows the same line of experimental daringness as Yeezus, both adventurous albums that don’t babysit contemporary hip-hop ears. Despite rapping at a level that's impressive even for Vince, the album is a bit overwhelming at times. It's music that has all the elements of dance but doesn't inspire much foot tapping. There’s little incentive to dance, but I felt the grooves—the bounce and rhythm are, at times, infectious. It’s almost like my brain hasn’t registered that Vince is able to push his artistry this far. Big Fish Theory feels like a playful contradiction, a fusion of two opposing worlds.
There’s a part of me that wants Vince to retreat, to simply claim that these songs aren’t his natural element. I don’t believe that completely. The same way I don’t believe that Kanye should be forced to create one sound. I hated Yeezus until I stopped wanting my preconceived notions of Kanye to appear. What Vince accomplishes with Big Fish Theory is the introduction of his ceilingless ambition. He pushed for all the anxious build-ups, unorthodox distortion, and music-focused elements that made Yeezus the wildest possible ride. Unlike Kanye, Vince hasn’t declined as a lyricist. He’s still painting vivid portraits from his candid vantage point. Hell Can Wait, Summertime ‘06 and Prima Donna all represent Vince’s slow progress to this point. This isn’t a sudden twist, to reach this point in his artistry, he played the role of a tortoise and not the hare.
Vince will never be a hook writer that brings forth a catchy phrase that takes over the summer. I don’t see a future where he breaks the radio with a single ready to reach Billboard’s top charts. He doesn’t make music for anyone's approval―not the labels, not the fans, not the critics. The joy of Big Fish Theory is an album unlike anything I’ve heard this year, living in a time so ahead I might not live to see it. It's music existing outside the conventional, outside the mainstream, and almost completely outside of hip-hop. I have to view this album through the same lens as Yeezus—wondering how we got here, yet intrigued by it all.
Vince Staples is the most interesting rapper alive for a reason, and Big Fish Theory has him picking up Kanye’s torch as an artist who challenges the very idea of what a rapper can create.
Early Favorites: “745,” “Samo”
Early Not-So-Favorites: “BagBak,” “Rain Come Down”
By Yoh, aka Big Yoh Theory, aka @Yoh31