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Album Review: Big Fish Theory (Vince Staples)

On his second full-length album, Big Fish Theory, Vince Staples tests the limits of rap music. From questioning rap clichés in his lyrics to defying expectations with experimental production, Staples has created a rap album unlike anything else being released today.

Staples chose an impressive group of collaborators to help create Big Fish Theory. Zack Sekoff is credited as a producer on five of the album’s twelve tracks. He is a student at Yale, and spent a semester studying abroad in London while working on beats for Staples. This undoubtedly made a big impact on the direction of the album, with many of the tracks (notably the opener, Crabs in a Bucket) revealing UK garage and grime influences.  

Yeah Right features a formidable verse by Kendrick Lamar. Paired with the unusual, metallic-sounding and bass-heavy production by SOPHIE, it makes for one of the standout tracks on the album. It also features a bridge produced by Flume, with vocals by KUČA. This bridge provides a change in the direction of the track and transitions nicely into Kendrick’s verse. In this song Staples criticises the clichéd expectations of the rap industry, including hollow boasts by rappers about wealth, cars, girls, etc.

He deals with this same topic in a line from the track SAMO: “Never blow it on a chain, rather blow my fucking brain.” It’s clear that the luxurious expectations of the rap lifestyle don’t appeal to Vince Staples. SAMO includes one of the albums more underwhelming features, courtesy of A$AP Rocky. This isn’t due to a disappointing performance from the rapper, but rather due to the unused potential of his limited involvement. As on Staples’ last full-length album, Summertime ’06, Rocky isn’t given a verse to himself, but is left on the chorus.

The features don’t end there. Juicy J and Ty Dolla $ign provide hooks on singles Big Fish and Rain Come Down respectively. Juicy J’s hook is particularly catchy and helps to create one of Staples’ most radio-friendly tracks to date. Kilo Kish, who is by now a frequent collaborator with Staples, makes several appearances on the album. Her soft delivery contrasts well with Staples, smoothing some of the harshness of the tracks. Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon has a production credit on Crabs in a Bucket, while Ray J appears on the GTA-produced Love Can Be.

Damon Albarn also features on Love Can Be. This is not Staples’ first time working with Albarn, as he recently appeared on the latest Gorillaz album, Humanz. Albarn described that album as “a party for the end of the world,” and the same description could easily be applied to Big Fish Theory. The EDM-influenced production creates Staples’ most danceable music yet, but the themes of the album remain serious. Staples deals with both political and personal themes in his lyrics. On BagBak, Vince expresses his wish to see more black women in American politics, and criticises racial profiling by police. Meanwhile he delivers heartbreaking personal lyrics on Alyssa Interlude: “Sometimes people disappear / Think that was my biggest fear / I should have protected you”. The contrast of Staples’ dark lyrics against dance music is summed up on Party People: “How am I supposed to have a good time when death and destruction’s all I see?”

Big Fish Theory is certainly Staples’ most ambitious project so far and also his most impressive. The risk of choosing experimental beats paid off for Staples, who has created an album that is forward thinking and boundary-pushing. Staples himself described this album as “future music”: I look forward to hearing what the future holds for Vince Staples.