Vince Staples burns through nihilism and house beats on 'Big Fish Theory'

Vince Staples is the hip-hop equivalent of a great character actor moonlighting as a prestige leading man. This is not a slight on the rapper, but an observation: Despite his current rep as a wisecracking TV personality and celebrated everyman emcee, Staples, the 23-year-old from Long Beach, is hard to pin down. He entered the public sphere via the coattails of Odd Future's early shock-raps; he dabbled in Earl Sweatshirt’s dim aesthetic around the time of his Shyne Coldchain series of mixtapes, in the first half of this decade; he graduated to high-def gangsta rap with his late-2014 EP Hell Can Wait; and he was then cast as a Kanye-esque visionary with the double-disc creation myth Summertime '06, his universally acclaimed 2015 full-length debut.

His nimble voice allows him to slide in the pocket of most beats, a Trojan horse tactic that sneaks his straightforward and poignant songwriting onto all kinds of songs. (His 2016 EP, Prima Donna, existed mostly as a rapping exercise, rifling through as many styles as Staples could muster). More recently, he floated atop a dramatic Clams Casino beat on the producer's 2016 LP, 32 Levels, and on Gorillaz song earlier this year — and was equally impressive on both.

Given how familiar fans are with Staples' versatility by now, it's no small feat that Big Fish Theory, his second full-length album, surprises as much as it does. Here, the Vince Staples experience is condensed and sharpened to startling cohesion — 12 tracks that span just over 36 minutes, including a smattering of interludes — and set to a new kind of backdrop, one filled with mutating trip-hop and house-inspired beats.

In a recent Reddit AMA, Staples said, "Hip-hop is electronic. Go listen to 'Planet Rock,'" a truth that nonetheless doesn't quite prepare you for the album's jarring, Tricky-esque opener "Crabs in a Bucket." Staples is right — hip-hop isn't all break beats and soul samples. But the gulf between the type of music that Staples has made for most of his career thus far and the wide, jittery electronic canvases that make up Big Fish Theory is striking. The new direction almost recalls Danny Brown's Old, the 2013 record that followed the Detroit rapper's career-defining breakout, 2011's XXX. With Old, Brown attempted to unite the two modes that then dominated him as an artist: the psyche-baring lyricist and the hedonistic, festival-crowd-pleasing emcee who wants to dabble in EDM. Big Fish Theory isn't as cynical as that record — Vince isn't making pill-popping party music — but the wildly divergent sounds on this album can leave fans feeling detached from the guy who wrote tightly woven, comparatively traditional hip-hop songs like "Blue Suede" and "Norf Norf."

Still, Staples remains a confident, engaging rapper. The record's almost-title track, "Big Fish," is a minimal, disembodied banger with a Juicy J hook that feels dropped in from another song, emphasizing an alienation and dread that flows throughout the entire album. "I was going crazy not too long ago/ Women problems every morning like the Maury show/ Swimming upstream while I'm trying to keep the bread from the sharks/ Made me want to put the hammer to my head," he raps, presumably a call-back to the headspace he occupied on 2016's paranoid Prima Donna. On the jumpy, Rick Ross-interpolating "Homage," Staples free-associates to a head-turning degree: "Won't no label have me in limbo/ Too much tempo, in Richard Prince mode/ Robert Longo, black as the Congo/ Pay me pronto or it's no convo."

There are other moments where everything snaps into stunning clarity: "745" is one, the album's most straightforward slice of swagger-rap, in which producer Jimmy Edgar's burping electronic beat emulates G-funk with crayons — which is to say it's a worthy imitation, but you can sense something's off. "Yeah Right," the eyebrow-raising collaboration with art-pop auteur Sophie and Kendrick Lamar, mostly sounds how you think it would: Sophie's cartoonishly boisterous beat vaporizes the track, while Kendrick is on autopilot mode, raising goosebumps before getting out of the way.

After growing accustomed to the album's amorphous textures, the impression that lingers most is just how sharp Staples sounds on every track. But lyrically, this effort doesn't feel as memorable as his earlier work. "Samo," a Basquiat reference and another Sophie production, is trap music fit for the uncanny valley age, and it's among my favorite songs because Staples is able to create a compelling argument for the enduring allure of the goofy PC Music aesthetic, which Sophie helped establish. On most of the album, a beat's dynamism overwhelms how nuanced a writer Staples is. R&B crooner and longtime collaborator Kilo Kish takes up a large amount of real estate as the album's co-star, appearing on a number of outros and saving Staples from completely dissolving into Big Fish Theory's gumbo of sounds. Appearances from Bon Iver's Justin Vernon, Damon Albarn and A$AP Rocky are largely unrecognizable.

Vince's current ambitious muse is commendable, yet Big Fish Theory's short runtime suggests that is something like a purge. This sort of feels like it's Vince getting out from underneath the long-gestating hype for a proper follow-up to Summertime '06 — like how Kendrick fired off this year's streamlined Damn. a scant two years after 2015's massive To Pimp a Butterfly.

The late Amy Winehouse is quoted in the intro to "Alyssa Interlude," from an interview featured in the 2015 documentary Amy: "Sometimes you have to get all the crap out the way before you hit the good stuff, then you're like, OK, I'm getting good stuff now." Whatever led him to this dizzying, defiant new direction, Big Fish Theory is mostly good stuff that leaves you awaiting better stuff to come.

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