Vince Staples sounds like he wants to have a good time on Big Fish Theory but the subtext suggests otherwise. ‘If I die today/Would you even know I existed?’ he asks on ‘Ramona Park is Yankee Stadium’. Staples is very much a conscious rapper, concerned not only with his own star-studded trajectory but with the devastation that’s always just a news broadcast away. To call Staples cerebral in his flow would be misguided; there is clearly a lot of innovation and awareness behind his vocabulary but emotion bleeds vividly into his viciously rapid approach. Amy Winehouse, who served as a strong influence for his 2016 EP Prima Donna, provides a crucial backstory on ‘Alyssa Interlude’: ‘I’m quite a self-destructive person, so I guess
I guess if you give me some material’. Elsewhere, Staples calls himself the new River Phoenix.
As for the collaborations, they are minimal, non-disruptive and choral on the whole but essential nonetheless. Kilo Kish, who appears on five tracks momentarily, is an unsung hero in this sense, fastening chapters of tracks together with a dreamy, ethereal touch. Damon Albarn, A$AP Rocky and Ray J also lend fleeting support but it’s another star turn on ‘Yeah Right’ from Kendrick Lamar that provides the biggest gem from Staples’ guests. Elsewhere, precision comes in the form of seagull squawks and gunshots- the contradictory soundtracks of Long Beach and Compton, the two areas that Staples grew up in.
But musically, electronic producers Flume and SOPHIE provide the necessary rhythmic salvos to charge Staples’ relentless recital. Production ranges from industrial barrage to grime-inflected club beats. There’s a pop mentality visible in the album’s danceable accessibility but the strident feel of those soundscapes points to something more menacing and artisan, like something out of a Nicolas Winding Refn film. Lead singles ‘BagBak’ and ‘Big Fish’ make a strong case for this assertion but the bigger picture outside of Staples’ metaphorical fish bowl never seems far from thought. He manufactures his own quandaries with precise ease, undercutting his own industrial bop with the savagery of a gritty reality that is both inclusive and self-reflexive. Outside of that devilish flow, Big Fish Theory is a party album powered by a plethora of heated emotions.