Vince Staples Proves He Is the Future of Hip Hop With Genre-Bending ‘Big Fish Theory’

There’s much to be said about Long Beach rapper Vince Staples’ future place in the hip-hop hall of fame. When he came to prominence as a quasi-member of the LA rap collective Odd Future, he soon began to carve his own path through a unique ability to craft an earnest, ambitious and undeniably prolific message. Since then, Staples has gained myriad critical praise through his solo work, particularly his 2015 debut “Summertime ’06” where the California MC spoke profoundly on life in Long Beach and the role of black youth in society. Today he drops “Big Fish Theory,” the not-so-long awaited follow-up filled with party-built bangers and what Staple’s likes to call “future rap.”

“Big Fish Theory” takes Staples to a place he’s only flirted with in recent years through one-off collaborations. That is the electronic side of hip-hop, the beat-scene side where tempo and production become as important as lyrical prowess. Through producers like SOPHIE, Flume, Zack Sekoff, Jimmy Edgar and GTA, Staples has created a wholly club-banger album. The title track features Juicy J, an OG purveyor of club-rap via his once popular Southern hip-hop group Three 6 Mafia. “Big Fish,” probably non-coincidentally, sounds like it would fit alongside other mid-2000’s hits from Nelly, Lil Wayne or J himself. This song, with its cut-rate production and dated hook from Juicy J, “I was up late night ballin’/Countin’ up hundreds by the thousands,” feels out of place on this spectacular, hyper-modern, future rap project.

Bag Bak,” the lead-single, on the other hand, dives head first into the moment. The up-tempo beat and fluid, rolling bass lend a sense of modernity to a track about societal woes and politics: “Prison system broken, racial war commotion/Until the president get ashy, Vincent won’t be votin’.” These dark, almost cynical themes pop-up here and there throughout the record. Though the overall sonic vibe may feel like a party, Staples explores things like self-destruction by way of “Alyssa Interlude.” Here, an excerpt from Amy Winehouse has her describing herself as self-destructive, a tendency which she says provided her with plenty of writing material. Staple’s has often praised Winehouse and her profound influence on him as an artist. Themes of artists gone too soon appear during “Homage” as well, where Staples compares himself to River Phoenix. Not but two tracks later during “Party People” does he say “Everybody might see my pain/Off the rail, might off myself.” Even though, unlike his references, Vince has made clear he stays miles away from drugs and alcohol, he’s still lucid when it comes to his own anxieties and dark thoughts.

Though this record is Staples’ vision, it has been made through lots of collaboration. The first track fans will encounter when listening numerically is “Crabs in a Bucket,” featuring Justin Vernon (a.k.a. Bon Iver) and Kilo Kish — a Brooklyn-based experimental artist with whom Staples has often collaborated. Kish also appears on the outro of “Homage,” with a trippy, avant-garde house production from Sekoff. SOPHIE’s production shines bright as well, through “SAMO” in particular, where an industrial, metallic synth layers through a broken, bass-heavy beat. A$AP Rocky makes an appearance here, alongside Kish once again, in the hook. The title refers to Jean-Michel Basquiat’s infamous graffiti tag standing for “Same Old Shit.” One of the more notable collabs, though, comes from “Yeah Right” which features the likes of Kendrick Lamar and alt-singer KUČKA with production help from Flume and SOPHIE. Flume’s known for his use of industrial, clunky sounds atop hard bass and “Yeah Right” is no exception. KUČKA’s delicate vocals juxtapose this nicely as she takes care of the bridge prior to K-Dot’s dazzling verse. Thematically, this track calls out the braggadocios nature of rappers through the lens of each one of the three artists featured.

Closing out “Big Fish” is the single “Rain Come Down,” which includes an auto-tuned hook from Ty Dolla $ign. The video shows Staples staring blankly, running through his verses as he awaits the spinning of a Sprite bottle to seemingly determine his future. His expression is heavy with gravity, as we’re to infer his existential thoughts. It’s often hard to pin down where Staples is coming from. Particularly during an album that on the surface is fun and light hearted but deep down is almost lonely and too contemplative for his own good. He has often said he doesn’t care what people think of him or his message. What’s to surmise is that Vince Staples is a complicated, albeit talented artist, with a profound ability to turn the average rap fan into a philosopher.  

Big Fish Theory” is available June 23 on Apple Music.