Upon my first listen, I didn’t enjoy Vince Staples’ newest album, Big Fish Theory. It’s a menacing project that leaves you in a purgatory of sound, lost somewhere between Kanye’s Yeezus and a Paul Oakenfold playlist. Vince treats his newest project as if we, the listeners, are his adversaries, and even the album's most enjoyable moments feel like you’re trapped for eternity in the club Tom Cruise shoots up in Collateral.
No matter what I did, I couldn’t seem to understand what Big Fish Theory, and for that matter, Vince, was getting at thematically. Even my favorite cuts, such as “Yeah Right” and “Samo,” felt like gasps for air on an album I was slowly drowning in. Yet, as I came across the eighth track, “Homage,” the album started to take shape. Towards the beginning of the record, Vince raps, “Hitchcock of my modern day,” and in the most cliché of ways, something immediately clicked; Vince Staples was exactly right.
Alfred Hitchcock, one of the most illustrious and memorable film directors of modern cinema, was often cited as the “master of suspense” in the world of filmmaking. That always felt like an abstract explanation of his genius, though. Hitchcock was also very much a master of tension and perspective. His films, often mysteries, carried with them a distinct spectacle in terms of how the audience was supposed to feel throughout the movie. The stories he told employed less traditional plotting and had more to do with the most efficient ways he could get viewers to react, one way or another. He was once quoted as saying, “Always make the audience suffer as much as possible.”
I’m not sure he was completely aware of it when he wrote that line, but there’s a profound connection between Vince Staples and Alfred Hitchcock. Vince may have been alluding to the fact that like Hitchcock, who never won an Academy Award despite directing countless highly-acclaimed movies, he too feels unappreciated for the art that he has created, a spot-on comparison considering the critical acclaim he's garnered over three major label releases and the lack of awards he's received for his music and videos.
However, Vince may have unknowingly stumbled into something much deeper here; a line drawn not only between space and time but between artistic mediums. It’s a contextualization of his entire catalog, even if accidental, that actually heightens the experience of both Big Fish Theory and the rest of his catalog.
In other words, Vince Staples is rap’s Alfred Hitchcock.
To many, Hitchcock is a modern day film and pop culture relic, mostly appreciated by those who study cinema or people like myself with too much time on their hands. What is easiest to point out about Hitchcock’s particular style, initially, has always been his use of tension and suspense. Many of his most notable films, such as Psycho or Vertigo, are slow-burning thrillers that knowingly bog themselves down in the hopes that your anticipation grows for the first thrill. Even Psycho, which has one of the most iconic scenes in film history, doesn’t ever show its action until almost forty minutes in.
Much of Vince Staples’ music has always possessed a similar quality. Vince’s uniqueness derives from not just his storytelling abilities, but how he chooses to tell those stories. The composition always feels surgical, but in a way that makes Vince feel like a doctor trying to slice an artery. His lyrics are precise, the production calculated and purposefully stress-inducing—Vince records often have you squirming in your headphones way before he starts throwing lyrical haymakers.
For instance, take “Blue Suede,” a single from Vince’s first official project, Hell Can Wait. The production, which resembles DJ Quik trying to reproduce GZA’s “4th Chamber” instrumental, is anything but enjoyable—and that feels like the point. Vince weaves in and out of the pockets of the squealing beat with lyrics like, “Ask where he from then leave his dome roofless / Sweet chin music kick back, gruesome / Watch out for Judas, Vice, and G-Unit.” It’s hard not to appreciate the technical prowess of his storytelling when the imagery he employs is uneasy to imagine. Other tracks on Hell Can Wait, like “Fire,” execute the same formula, with Vince choosing to only jab at his audience with his most suspenseful lyrics.
The tension that Hitchcock was predominantly interested in was the juxtaposition of light and dark, both in terms of scenery and also his characters. That same juxtaposition can be found throughout Big Fish Theory. For most of the album, the production feels like a night with too many drugs involved, the lyrics delivering the dangerous thoughts that could follow. On the album’s intro, “Crabs in a Bucket,” Vince laments, “If I’m feelin funny, guaranteed gon' blast / Cock back, blast, put 'em in a bag / Prolly gon' regret it in the retrospect / Got a lot of problems I ain’t let go yet,” while Zack Sekoff and Justin Vernon's house-infused production feels like anything but remorseful. In much the same way Hitchcock built tension in the finale of The Man Who Knew Too Much, “Crabs in a Bucket” creates its tension by conducting itself like a New Year's party on the verge of the apocalypse.
Hitchcock was also famous for his control of the scope and perspective of his films. His lens was always focused on exactly what the viewer was supposed to see, and the reveal always took a backseat to the process. Hitchcock’s Rear Window, one of his finest films as well as an essential for up-and-coming directors studying cinematography, captures the claustrophobic feeling of being trapped in the film’s suspenseful moments much like its characters. In Rear Window, which takes place entirely from one man’s apartment bedroom as he tries to solve a murder mystery in an adjacent unit, Hitchcock doesn’t truly care about the murder being solved. Rather, he concerns himself with how we as an audience experience the events of the film as opposed to the actual conflicts.
Vince has shown himself to be well-equipped at this same technique, both in his music and their accompanying videos. On his debut album, Summertime '06, records like “Norf Norf” and “Señorita” thrive on the idea of perspective. In the video for the former, we're greeted by a close-up of his face in the backseat of a cop car, and only slowly is the world around him revealed. The lens only occasionally veers to the police violence taking place around Vince, and the majority of the time we spend up close with Vince finds him staring blankly into his own abyss. The choice of perspective is masterful, and it captures the essence of the suffocating lyrics that “Norf Norf” is built upon. Much like Hitchcock, the video isn’t necessarily about how he ended up in the cop car, but our experience once he’s in it.
The same goes for “Señorita,” in which the scope of the world in which the video takes place slowly expands to reveal that our initial impression isn't merely an amplified version of the hellish environment Vince grew up in, but rather a zoo that is being enjoyed by a white family. It’s a twist ending, another trademark Hitchcockian characteristic, that is used to perfection. Yet, the twist is only made transcendent by the camerawork leading up to it.
It isn’t just Vince’s music that contains visuals, though. Much of Big Fish Theory incorporates that same belief in the way Vince chooses to craft the album. In other words, whatever is lying deep within the thematic foundation of Big Fish Theory, Vince’s stranglehold on the listener has never been more apparent. On the album, the outside world, as well as the other sonic palettes Vince had previously used on other projects, are only visible when he chooses to allow them to be. Songs like “Samo,” “745” and “Big Fish” feel reminiscent of past projects, but once again the musical lens, if you will, stays locked on Vince and nothing else.
One of the most innate characteristics that both Hitchcock and Staples share is the contrast between them and the art that they’ve created. From everything we’ve seen, Vince Staples is hilarious outside of his music. He’s witty, down to earth, open to both criticism and debate, and yet, he manages to evoke the sense that he truly doesn’t give a fuck about what we think anyways. This was always something Hitchcock himself was very keen on too, with many introductions on his Alfred Hitchcock Presents television show often poking fun at the creation of movies and TV. However, their shared sense of humor and satire of their respective mediums isn’t as interesting as the way those qualities contradict much of their own art.
By and large, Vince’s music has been anything but comedic. His tales of Long Beach violence, love songs that always tightrope walk the line between romantic and obsessive, and experimentations with some of the noisiest instrumentation in rap have made for some pretty heavy listening. With Hitchcock, movies like The Birds, Lifeboat, Notorious and Saboteur were anything but lighthearted. Yet, that contrast never detracts from either of their art, but actually, serves to enhance it. It not only allows the artists to separate themselves from the art but creates the impression of an artist willing to step back and objectively evaluate their own product.
There have been other rappers that have come close to a Hitchcockian style of music. Earlier in the year, Mannie Fresh deemed The Notorious B.I.G. to be the Alfred Hitchcock of rap. You could even argue that Kanye’s albums have always dazzled the ears more in how they were crafted as opposed to merely Kanye's delivery of narratives. Yet, Vince has continuously come the closest to the auteur of cinematic suspense. While Hitchcock was a genius in the art of film noir, Vince has become a genius in his own right in the art of music noir, if you will. Like Hitchcock, Vince has learned that the conflict and narrative within your art are only as strong as the experience you give your listeners along the way. Every filmmaker and musician have a story to tell, but it is the tension within that story and the way one chooses to manipulate it either through the lens or microphone, that ultimately allows the audience to appreciate it even if they don’t love it.
Big Fish Theory isn’t necessarily an enjoyable album, just like Hitchcock’s arguable magnum opus, Vertigo, isn’t necessarily an enjoyable movie. Vertigo creates tension by holding its audience hostage from the film’s climax for a painstakingly long time, while Big Fish Theory is a relentless sonic experiment that builds its tension from, as Hitchcock said, making “the audience suffer as much as possible.”
In the same vein as Hitchcock, Vince Staples’ music has always found its innermost beauty when it’s constantly making you squirm in your seat, failing to escape its hold on you.