Alphonse Pierre is quarterbacking like he’s 40 Water.
Relatability is important in a pop culture landscape where young black men and women have little that allows us to look and say, “I get that.” Entertainment mediums throw us a bone occasionally — Donald Glover has been the go to choice to get Black people to stop complaining — but for the most part there’s nothing. When you do find something relatable you cherish it, you laugh at things that aren’t funny because you’re unused to those thoughts existing anywhere but in your own head.
Sometimes it feels like my brain is intertwined with Vince Staples. His experiences with the police hit too close to home. We have the same fears and the same pessimistic outlook on life. He questions the point of success when society still only views you as another black man or woman. He cuts to the heart of the matter: what’s the point of working so hard when you can still be shot down in the street or spoken down to as if you’re lesser on a consistent basis? That’s the shit that black men and women think about every single day.
So it goes without saying that I love Big Fish Theory. This is my favorite project of Vince Staples’ career, one that also manages to uphold the “XO Tour Life” rule that Lil Uzi Vert set for 2017: if your song content is dark we also need it to be 2 stepping in the club approved. On this second Def Jam LP, the Long Beach artist combines socially aware lyrics with vibrant and experimental production. Take “Bagbak,” where Vince swishes his shot at the next party-ready pro-Black anthem covering topics like police, prison, and Donald Trump. It’s vaguely similar to Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright,” but entirely in Staples’ own style and voice.
The influences on Big Fish Theory transverse the globe from Daft Punk and N.E.R.D. to UK garage drum patterns, Burial, and Vespertine era Bjork. refreshingly opposed to the major trends of the streaming rap era. It’s only 12 tracks and sticks to a uniquely grimy sound at a time when many rappers have turned to more melodic and polished sonics (Thot Breaker, Hndrxx, etc.).
From the first storm, Big Fish Theory feels gloomy and cinematic. “Crabs In a Bucket” scuttles out with a long haunting buildup reminiscent of a Boards of Canada album. Once the two-step drums kicked in on “Crabs In a Bucket,” I immediately searched the tracklist for the Craig David cameo I knew had to be there. There isn’t one. Craig David was probably too busy grooming his facial hair. But the minute we hear Vince Staples’ voice, the mood changes and the dance album that would be, becomes nonexistent. Then a possessed sounding Kilo Kish sneaks in on the outro and makes you feel like you’re in an apocalyptic science fiction film.
You ever go out to the bar and at the start of the night you’re hitting your sturdiest milly rock and by the end you’re like, “I hate this place so much?” That’s how the best songs on Big Fish Theory make you feel. Produced by GTA, “Love Can Be” has plenty of bounce and once Ray J appears for the bridge and brutally says, “Love can be so disheartening,” it reminded me of some of my favorite electronic influenced R&B like Kelela (need that Ray J dance album).
Or run through another album standout, the Zack Sekoff produced “Party People.” which may be both the most morbid and festival ready song on Big Fish Theory. It’s almost trance-like and features some of Vince’s most distressing lines: “How am I supposed to have a good time when death and destruction is all I see.” And later, “awkward silence my brain scream louder asking when I’m gonna blast myself.”
“Yeah Right” belongs on a tracklist that the internet freaks out over for eight hours before finding out its fake. However, it’s real and most importantly, this shit is so hard. It’s a collaboration between two of the most prominent young electronic artists, Flume and Sophie, featuring a Kucka dance bridge and Kendrick Lamar’s best feature of 2017. It’s part of the reason why I prefer Big Fish Theory to his previous album Summertime ‘06 — he’s retained the ability to have fun amongst all the negativity.
As outstanding as Kendrick Lamar is, the most impressive feature is Ty Dolla $ign on “Rain Come Down.” The cabana owner continues his journey to be featured on every album possible (I’m not complaining) and joins Staples in his frightening resolution. Dolla $ign belts, “No, no, no” throughout the hook as Vince continues stressing his hopelessness and addressing his possible death (“Riding in a drop top, sun where I think might get JFK’d.” Not to mention his lack of trust and love.
The beat lingers for a bit after Ty Dolla $ign’s last words end the album. In his final verse, Vince references La Haine, the French film which is appreciated by some rappers for it’s realism in portraying the hopelessness of marginalized groups. Album closes similar to film—surrounded by mystery, violence, and the realization that we’re correct to be hopeless.
There’s a scene in the film John Wick when John Wick shows up at a club to murder some people because he’s John Wick and that’s what he does. The music in the club switches between electro-pop and techno. People are dancing and the club looks like a good time. But as soon as John Wick appears, the depressing blue fluorescent lights feel more ominous and John Wick’s presence alone makes the same techno songs that have been playing instantly feel dark.
That’s what Vince Staples is able to do on this album—he enhances the gloom and brings out a sense of desolation. And when the lyrics start to feel a little too real, you can ignore it all and just two step.