Vince Staples Turns the Dial to a Different Frequency on ‘FM!’

Vince Staples has dropped an album with little notice. Staples has been teasing the project on social media, divulging details over the last several days. In one tweet, he explained that this release is actually something of a diversion from his work on another upcoming album. The work is dedicated to a fan who has been with Staples since day one, and needed something to relate to at the present moment. Most artists make claims that they owe everything to their fans, but this is clearly going above and beyond. Whatever it is that this particular fan called for, Staples caters to it by putting his signature stamp on the effort — as all real artists do. He has dished out a set of G-funk-flavored bangers. Expect to be caught off guard, and reassess a thing or two, however, although you’ll still ultimately come out vibing. The subject matter here bellies the mellowness of the sound. “FM!” is an album themed around radio repertoire, although its content wouldn’t quite meet the restrictive standards, save for some pirated stations. Staples hails from Long Beach, CA, and he invites you to the sunny locale in this album —but it’s not quite what you might expect. After all, Staples rose to prominence in loose association with the Odd Future Collective, which has always been a little outside the bounds of what normally floats in hip-hop. What Staples delivers on this album is all a bit tongue-in cheek. Get loose. And then, get lucid.

Opener “Feels Like Summer” is a promising title, especially considering the album’s fall release. The track begins with Staples declaring, “Whatever day, vibe, month it is, it just feels like summer.” Fair enough, but what exactly does summer in your neighborhood feel like? Most would agree that the beat that picks up certainly sounds like summer — West Coast cool, with an easy, breezy vibe, and hand claps packing a punch. Lyrically, however, it takes a swift turn left, and Staples starts rapping about the harsh realities of his environment, with lyrics like “Wrong hat, wrong day, I’d kill my brother.” It turns out the song title is all irony, and what better voice to make this resonate than Ty Dolla $ign? He steps in for a carefree chorus, full of “oh oh oh yeahs,” and it reaches farcical levels, as intended. Hip-hop could generally use more sarcasm, and Staples is leading the way, starting things strong with a track to, at once, make heads nod and eyebrows raise.

“Outside” has a hook with Staples halfway between playground chant and menacing taunt. There’s still an undercurrent of sarcasm in his voice, as if acknowledging the silliness of the “Left side… right side” refrain, and nudging you to realize the fact that this is all geared toward something bigger. “Don’t Get Chipped” finds Staples in helium mode. With an already high-pitched voice, he overdoes it in certain songs, much like Childish Gambino does when he puts on that voice. In keeping with the rather jaded mood of the opener, Staples says, “Sammy told me that a change gone come / I’m not going if my gang won’t come,” referring to Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come,” but half-shrugging it off.

“Relay” is the track with the most swag yet — a dragging, swaying crunk number, with Staples accentuating his “-ers” in a mix of gangster posturing and self-aware tomfoolery. There’s a reference to Outkast’s “Gangsta Shit, which makes sense, as you can hear Outkast’s influence in Staples’ music — in the high speed, high pitched vocals bits interspersed with his usual verses, and in the general bold daringness and effortless cool of his sound. There’s a track devoted to a few seconds of Earl Sweatshirt rapping, titled “New Earl Sweatshirt (interlude.)” It’s literally just seconds, and it shows Staples has a sense of humor. It begins with a generic, cheeseball radio DJ voice, introducing “New Earl Sweatshirt.” At this point, the album title makes sense. The album is designed to play like a satirical radio set, with shout outs and promo ads thrown in between tracks. Next up, “Run the Bands” consists mainly of Juicy J repeating the titular line incessantly. It keeps the mood of the last track going, and at this point, things are so mellow, and tightly locked in, that there’s a consistent mood established.

No one embodies urban West Coast nonchalance than E40, and he shows up on the next number, “FUN!” Unlike most the tracks leading up to this, it seems to be a genuinely lighthearted number, with the refrain “We just wanna have fun.” Things turn darker on the next track, “No Bleedin’” which begins with another FM DJ intro, pressing play on the Pro Tools sound effect board, and giving you a phone number to call. The frivolousness of all this makes the upcoming track more striking, as the chorus line is “Head on a swivel, no bleedin’ me.” Featured rapper Kamaiyah drops lines like “Click, clack, bang, bitch, I stay dangerous,” and Staples raps in a sing-song intonation that mocks you, as if saying, “Yeah, dance to this. This is our reality.”

“Brand New Tyga” is another radio interlude, with an effervescent DJ letting you know that the brand new Tyga is on the way. Tyga spits a few bars for a few seconds, and it makes a case for how a tiny soundbyte could function as a song, because it’s so catchy that those few seconds are enough. Next comes a skit, with more radio DJs, this time quizzing a caller for some trivia competition. Then, the closing track, “Tweakin’” comes out of the blue, and hits hard. There’s still a Cali quality to the beat, with bubbling, evanescent synth lines, but there’s a trap-informed backbone that adds some grit, making the track more climactic. Staples recruits Kehlani and fellow Cali rapper Buddy for this track, and the three voices mesh perfectly. After he runs through a litany of lost friends, Kehlani sings “We just lost somebody else this weekend, no no / Think that I am jumping off the deep end,” with a tone and melody that bellies the graveness of the subject matter, whereupon the track is brought to an abrupt halt by a sudden, outlandishly cheery DJ interjection.   

In 2018, few of us listen to the radio. Still, the radio format reveals a lot about the way that we perceive music — selected snippets, hand-picked, by someone who calculated that you’d be particularly receptive to them, interspersed with energetic calls to action, and chatty segments of comic relief. This format lends itself to inanity no more than the standard template of hip-hop — “feel good” music, about relishing the moment. Staples cleverly uses this template, and turns out a set of consistently catchy tunes, all the while rapping about harsh realities that defy their musical placement. At just twenty-two minutes, “FM!” is a streamlined exercise to make you stop in your tracks, and think for a moment. It’s an easy, breezy dance party, drawing you in until you get to the core, and find yourself compelled to take a step back.   

FM!” is available Nov. 2 on Apple Music.