Vince Staples is not a guy short on opinions, but it might not be his voice that gives us the best place to start with his new album, Big Fish Theory. Instead, Amy Winehouse gives us some sight. On Big Fish Theory‘s third track, “Alyssa’s Interlude,” we hear a pretty harrowing account of the late singer’s creative process, touching on her self-destructive streak but also relationships and heartbreak. It sets up a lot of what Staples seems to focus on with his new album. There’s celebrity as its own fishbowl, but also fame as an insufficient form of escapism. The heartbreaks that can’t be shaken on this record — via fame or getting lost in music — are both deeply personal and communal. This is a very different record from Summertime ’06, both thematically and sonically, but it’s no less incisive, challenging, or flat-out excellent.
If you dip back into older mixtapes from Vince Staples, especially something like Winter in Prague, the shift in tempo on Big Fish Theory might give you whiplash. Skittering opener “Crabs in a Bucket” sets the tone early, with Staples packing words into every crack and crag in the song’s jumpy beat. “Big Fish” plays the beat straighter, but still charges ahead with a low rumble and a chorus that at least suggests celebration (“I was up late night ballin'”), even if it pulls that rug out. And late-album standouts “Party People” and “Bag Back” whip up the tempo one more time with heavy house and techno influences on the beat. What makes these songs so compelling musically is that despite those heavy influences, there are fresh twists and turns throughout. The bass on “Yeah Right” rumbles and shakes like its coming out loud from trunk speakers. Low synth lines soften the hard edges of “BagBak.” When the tempo slows here, the details in the songs don’t fall off. “745” starts with a late-night thump, but it’s the spaces between the spare bass notes, between the snap of drums, that turns what could be a sex jam into something far more isolated. “Same Ol Thang” pulls a similar trick, the beat always chugging forward but slightly off kilter, tilting Staples’s smooth flow just a bit off balance.
These careful holes in the music, disruptions in the beat and unexpected sounds sneaking to the forefront, mirrors the dichotomy of the record itself. On “Big Fish” Staples may have been “up late night ballin’,” but while he claims to be “so far from [his] past misfortune,” he also hasn’t quite let it go. By the second verse, he’s recounting “women problems every morning like the Maury show” and how “trying to keep my bread from the sharks make me want to put the hammer to my head.” Personal and professional tensions bubble to the surface here (in the song’s video, he’s in a sinking boat surrounded by literal sharks) and you can feel the walls closing in around him even as he keeps trying to shake it all off. Later in the record, “Party People” may beg to be danced to, but Staples still wonders “How am I supposed to have a good time when death and destruction is all I see?”
He seems acutely aware, as a now-arrived rap star, of being watched, and celebrity seems to be the small pond he’s stuck in. This isn’t just griping about attention, it’s genuine fear in places. At the start of “Party People,” he begs “please don’t look at me in my face / everybody might see my pain.” He vacillates between worry over personal troubles becoming public fodder and anger over the image of Vince Staples the rapper overtaking Vince Staples the actual man. On closer “BagBak,” you can almost hear Staples shaking his head when he raps “everybody think they know me now.” And on “Yeah Right” Staples and Kendrick Lamar (with another great, inventive verse) take on the bullshit of hip-hop persona building. Staples lays out the questions he expects to get, and they are about everything but the music: “Is your house big? Is your car nice? Is your girl fine?”
The more you play it, the more the up-tempo of Big Fish Theory morphs from celebration to frenetic panic attack. Each song is like scales falling from the eyes, so while there are small moments of relief and escape, the longer the album goes on the more the fish becomes aware of the tight walls of that bowl or the close shore of that small pond. Hemmed in by the bullshit of music when you just want to make songs or get lost in them. The fine line between making honest music, and being exploited as an artist for your pain. The way in which future dreams (“This is for my future baby mama / hope your skin is black as midnight”) can still be tethered to present fears (“Pray the police don’t come blow me down ’cause of my complexion”). All these layers start to rise to the surface as you put these songs on repeat. And you will put these songs on repeat, but despite all the thorny ideas here and all the deep emotion of these songs, the album also plays like a constant set of singles ready to get stuck in your head.
And it’s those kinds of amazing balances that make Big Fish Theory so striking. It’s accessible yet intricate and challenging. It’s political, but that political is threaded through the personal, so Staples never sounds like he’s preaching or trying to speak for anything but his own experience. Vince Staples is just a great storyteller, and when you hear a good story, a timely story, those words echo out and resonate. That happens all over Big Fish Theory, the next great record from Vince Staples, and not likely the last.