Vince Staples likes to fuck with people. A few weeks ago, Staples went on The Daily Show and asked Trevor Noah to think about what it means that a betta fish only “lasts” two weeks. (Staples had given away betta fish, also known as Siamese fighting fish, at a listening party for his new album, Big Fish Theory.) Staples could have said they “only live two weeks,” but he chose the kind of slight indirection that can cause mayhem on a talk show, where a pause is deadly (not that Noah blinked). Staples raised another bump when he told Noah he’d described his music as Afrofuturism to a writer just because he likes “saying stuff about black people to white people.” It doesn’t really mean anything, he deadpanned, making Noah laugh nervously. Maybe Noah had heard Big Fish Theory and wanted to talk about Afrofuturism. It’s not a stretch.
The thirty-six minutes of Big Fish Theory are related to the full hour of Staples’s major-label debut, Summertime ’06, the way White Light/White Heat and The Velvet Underground and Nico are linked. The more focused extremity of the second album changes what we hear on the first album. Drones bring out drones, and spoken word does the same. A quick listen to Big Fish Theory could lead to, “Hey! This one sounds like some weird-ass British music. Where’s the rap?” The credits make that seem logical. Almost every track on Summertime ’o6 was created with Chicago rap veteran No I.D., Jay Z’s producer on 4:44. Except for L.A. duo Christian Rich, Big Fish Theory brings in an entirely new slate: fellow L.A. producers Zack Sekoff and Ray Brady, along with pop outliers SOPHIE, Flume, and Justin Vernon. The overall sound is loose and electric, the tones of dance music supporting all kinds of work unrelated to dancing. Play both albums on loop, though, and the gulf between them is not big. Turns out Staples is staying true to an idea he introduced on the Hell Can Wait EP three years ago. Start with an enormous, textured bassline, establish the tempo, add Vince, and use brief figures and noises — rather than a full-fledged counterpoint line — to establish the identity. There will be plenty of space left over for the voice and bass to bloom into. (In what seems to be an entirely sincere tweet posted hours before Big Fish Theory started streaming, Staples wrote, “PLEASE EXPERIENCE BIG FISH THEORY IN THE APPROPRIATE SETTING BECAUSE I DO INDEED SERVE THE BASS.”) The similarity between the two albums could be put this way: Work on a Vince Staples album and he’ll make you do the Vince sound. In this arena, No I.D. and Australian EDM sensation Flume end up making roughly similar tracks. As Staples typed last week in a Reddit AMA, “Hip hop is electronic go listen to planet rock.”
When Staples followed up Hell Can Wait with Summertime ’06, it was clear he was filling a role nobody else would. He was technically flawless, but not as uptight as many multisyllablists, and his deep-rooted skepticism allowed him to work both within and outside rap’s established priorities. Or as he put it in “Lift Me Up,” “I need to fight the power, but I need that new Ferrari.” His crystal-clear refusenik stance is his alone. Staples has already mastered the art of being a public figure, well enough that there are kids who may know his Sprite commercial and appearance on Pitchfork’s “Over/Under” without knowing any of his songs. He is one of the least biddable people in popular music, apparently unable to be rattled out of his ice-cold median state.
The fucking around means something because he doesn’t fuck around as a rapper, and his shadowboxing with genre has been more interesting than a simple “yay the future” (or Afrofuturism) chat. Staples is famously sober, and that shows in his love of accuracy. He recently gave his co-sign to Panic at the Disco and Cyndi Lauper but has made no serious forays into anything not rap. The Crip from Long Beach still claims his set and won’t let anyone say “former gangbanger,” a thought that needs to be paired with his equal distaste for the idea of “gangsta rap,” which he’s denied making, several times. Take “Big Fish,” the song. The Christian Rich track might have been hyphy ten years ago, and may still be. Staples is certainly playing with the gangsta script, talking about being “in the foreign with the GPS addressed to your mama house” while Juicy J raps about “counting up hundreds by the thousand.” Whoever the narrator is here is doing whatever it is your theoretical gangster does. Except that’s a set of imagery Staples abandons for the video, in which Staples sits, rapping, in a sinking boat, all alone.
Staples plays identifying tags against themselves, when he can. But Staples makes rap and references rap, whatever the beats do. Not only does Kendrick Lamar show up on “Yeah Right,” before that, on “745,” Staples quotes the “all my life” motif from Kendrick’s “Backseat Freestyle.” Staples is stretching this as far as he can. Drop into “Alyssa Interlude” and you’ve got a long quote from an Amy Winehouse interview. She’s self-destructive, she writes weed songs (Staples the teetotaler does not), and she thinks love is a drug. And then Staples sings (sort of) about rain on a windowsill and his fear of people disappearing — and doesn’t rap. This flows into “Love Can Be,” a song that flirts heavily enough with the speedy bounce of two-step to simply be two-step. Two-step with rapping.
And then we’re into “745,” a slow and sticky track with copious low end and a revolving keyboard figure that sounds like a haunted version of L.L. Cool J’s “I Need Love.” Staples is going to scoop someone up — at 7:45 — while reminding us that pretty women have always lied to him. While scrambling his brand and hitting the brakes hard enough to toss the tourists off the hood, Staples is less the punchliner this time around. There’s a relationship lurking in the back of this album, along with sideways cracks at something that might be fame. On “Yeah Right,” SOPHIE and Flume blow out the low end of trap, delete the hi-hats, and add a bunch of metallic resonance. Staples returns to the pretty women and houses of fame without calling anyone out, specifically. After the straight shots of Summertime ’o6, these lyrics linger more than they land. Maybe Staples is turning on himself here.
There is as much spin in the mix as in the music. Staples’s voice is often distorted or placed below the drums, presenting him as the ghost of his own house. Sekoff makes things move briskly on “Party People,” a move the song decides to fight. Stranded somewhere in the middle distance, Staples calls out “party people” from what sounds like an air-conditioning duct. As soon as he’s asked his people to dance and move, he’s asking “How I’m supposed to have a good time, when death and destruction’s all I see?”
If you want to know what Staples sounds like without the mixed feelings, go to “BagBak,” the first track released from Big Fish Theory, in February two weeks after Trump’s inauguration. Brady’s electro bassline rolls smoothly and Staples’s talk is bright and foregrounded: “We need Tamikas and Shaniquas in that Oval Office/Obama ain’t enough for me, we only getting started.” Then the album is gliding to a close on “Rain Come Down,” the only song to break the four-minute mark. Ty Dolla $ign is on hand to croon, and the bassline is big again. Staples delivers his springiest rhymes over another tweaked variant of garage. And he might mean all of it. And he might not even be fucking with you.