Vince Staples: Big Fish Theory review – good vibrations and gunfire

(Def Jam)
The rapper and former Crip’s urgent second album juxtaposes California sunshine with the horrors of gang life

You’ll occasionally hear seagulls on Vince Staples’s records. Raised in Compton and Long Beach, the 23-year-old California rapper includes them, you suspect, to remind listeners where his taut flows come from. The squawks are sometimes followed by gunshots – more sonic signatures from those LA neighbourhoods.

Juxtaposing Cali sunshine and Cali gang hell is just one thing Staples is good at; playing with time is another. His 2016 EP, Prima Donna, was a self-contained work about fame and death that wound backwards in time.

Before that, his debut album, Summertime ’06 (2015), earned fawning reviews. Bucking convention, it was a double, rife with anger at African American reality. Before making his first marks in the company of Odd Future’s Earl Sweatshirt and Syd tha Kid, Staples was a member of the Crips gang; you assume his uncompromising verses are strongly autobiographical (key track: the devastating Nate, from the EP Shyne Coldchain II). Before that, he was a straight-A student whose dad was a drug dealer – another good kid in a mad city as per Kendrick Lamar, whose works have inevitably overshadowed Staples’s own rise.

There are no hard feelings. Here on Staples’s second album proper, Lamar appears on a track called Yeah Right, alongside Australian electronic type Flume and experimental pop producer Sophie. They accompany California’s twin talents with an ear-popping barrage of gushes, clanks and distorted bubblegum pop: the flows provide the rhythm.

Watch the video for Big Fish.

It’s no exception. Like its predecessors, Big Fish Theory is an album that grabs you by the lapels with its urgency while slapping you round the ears with its sound design. From track one, Crabs in a Bucket, Staples calls out a society that crucifies its black men. “They don’t ever wanna see the black man eat/Nails in a black man hands and feet,” he sneers. “Put ’em on a cross or you put ’em on a chain/Lines be the same: ‘he don’t look like me’.” Rolling along underneath is party music, drawn from UK garage and grime. The British undercurrent continues with the sample of Amy Winehouse talking about her art at the start of Alyssa Interlude.

Big Fish Theory grapples once again with injustice – BagBak yearns for more “Tamikas and Shaniquas in the Oval Office” – but also with the problems of having made it. It’s a furious and sad party record that you can dance to, often.

The poppy Big Fish bounces hard while the club-primed Party People crystallises another Cali cliche – good vibrations – and its contradictions: Staples is making thrilling pop music about ugly truths. “Move your body if you came here to party, and if not, pardon me,” he says, before knocking everyone’s feet from under them. “How I’m supposed to have a good time when death and destruction is all I see?”

And the seagulls? They’re on an interlude called Ramona Park Is Yankee Stadium, accompanied this time by a thunderstorm and New York traffic noises. Naturally, it still ends in a gunshot.


Kitty Empire

The GuardianTramp

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