Vince Staples stakes claim for West Coast trap throne with sophomore album ‘Big Fish Theory’

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Editor’s Note: The arts and entertainment department is adjusting its grading scale from a letter-grade system to a numeric score out of 5. This change is intended to increase accuracy and consistency between reviews.

Vince Staples appeared on “The Daily Show with Trevor Noah” just over a week before the release of his second studio album, Big Fish Theory. Staples and Noah got to talking, and eventually the host inquired after the validity of popular claims that the coming album was an attempt at “Afrofuturism.” Staples cracked a rare grin.

“I like saying stuff about Black people to white people,” the 23-year-old quipped.  

Once the laughter had died down a bit, Noah had to clarify.

“So it doesn’t mean anything?”

Staples shoots a “You serious?” look.

“Of course not.”

And Staples carries this thematically avoidant style throughout his jaw-dropping project. Big Fish Theory, Staples claims, is meant to mean something different to everyone who experiences the 36-minute exploration into the impact of success — but what does it mean to him?

On the title track and second song, “Big Fish,” Staples ponders everyday fears from his old life while sitting in his Benz. He remembers hearing gunshots at a bus stop, quickly scanning “For the click, clack, clap / Or the boop, bop, bam, cuz” — and reveals, briefly, his continual conflict. Despite having money and fame, and despite having left the world in which kids fear gunshots, his mind can’t seem to wander far from North Long Beach. The money isn’t enough to help everyone he wants to, the fame nowhere near what it takes to make things better.

Big Fish Theory opens incredibly strong, and the album’s middle only builds upon that compelling foundation. A monologue from Amy Winehouse opens the introspective “Alyssa Interlude,” and “Love Can Be…” is the house party banger of the summer. “745” is dark magic — the kind only Staples can conjure.

And, to be honest, “Yeah Right” cashed all the hype checks that were written for Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN. From his first solo work Hell Can Wait, through Summertime ‘06 and Prima Donna, Staples has supplied intoxicating, grungy and downright scary sound production that does well to compliment his way-too-cool-for-school vocal style, and never have these forces felt so complementary.

This combination is augmented by one of the very best feature verses that Lamar, known for his fantastic features, has ever done. Here’s the end of a particularly ridiculous combination: “Swang like new Dana Dane, I ride dirty / Paid like two Damon Wayans, retire early.”

Damon Wayans didn’t ask for that, but damn, did he deserve it.

“BagBak” is as close to true and intentional social commentary as the album offers, but — as is a trademark of Staples — it’s serious messages are delivered very tongue-in-cheek. He asks for listeners to “Clap your hands if the police ever profiled,” and offers to balance out the chakras of his future baby mama.

But while the cut is full of anti-government, anti-police and anti-racist imagery, the point Staples seems so desperate to get across is for everyone to leave him alone. The music he — and every musician — produces may be a look into his life, but fans and media members aren’t entitled to anything from him. Staples doesn’t want to share your selfie (“Don’t ask for pictures, bagbak I’m trippin’ ”), he doesn’t want to be your friend (“Negro, you are not my homie”) and he certainly doesn’t want to impress you (“How dare you think it’s different”).

Staples cuts away at the conventions of behavior, song structure, album length and arbitrary artistic pressures that others working in his industry perhaps feel, and thereby gets to the core of his argument with an efficiency (and unrelenting, pounding drumline) unheard since Yeezus. Maybe it’s the fact that we can’t completely nail down his argument that proves how truly pliable it is. Maybe the album is afrofuturist. Maybe it’s avant-garde, or maybe it’s anti-gangsta rap. But maybe it’s just a man making music that moves him.

“Fish don’t live that long,” Staples also admitted to Noah. Not even the ones that fight.

No matter what the hell you call it, Big Fish Theory is absolutely stunning.

Contact Austin Isaacsohn at [email protected].