Undoubtedly, it’s fair to say that experimental hip hop is now widely accepted in the mainstream. Although experimentation within rap was once confined to underground circuits, the fact that the freakish, ear-splitting beats that support Danny Brown’s maniacal, nasal spitting, or the convoluted, cinematic storytelling of Kendrick Lamar‘s prime material, have been met with such sweeping commercial success, is evidence of a clear paradigm shift when it comes to the scope of what is accepted by a general rap audience. Even pre-established hip hop heavyweights have dipped their toes in outlandish waters in recent times, such as Kanye West on his foray into industrial hip hop on Yeezus, whilst experimental acts that may still bear, or at least be associated with, the ‘underground’ label, à la Death Grips, have reached a far wider audience off the back of glowing critical reception and endorsements from fellow musicians. Likewise, although the eclectic, angular production and caustic, blunt lyricism of Vince Staples may have struggled to find headway amongst mainstream hip hop fans a decade ago, the Californian rapsmith was welcomed with instant critical success and slow but steady commercial success upon the unveiling of his popular solo debut EP from 2014, Hell Can Wait. Since then, Staples’ undertakings have continued to gain traction in the mainstream, both in the case of his debut full-length album from 2015, Summertime ’06, which was aided by the elevation of one of its singles, Norf Norf, to meme status, and his sophomore EP from last year, Prima Donna. Although these projects unequivocally whiffed of tropes from experimental hip hop, both in terms of their gothic, stripped-back production style and the MC’s grotesquely curt lyricism, Staples’ brief solo discography seemed as if it was gearing up for a full-on foray into the avant-garde, and the artist’s latest album, Big Fish Theory, confirms such speculations. Or, at least, this is what so many critics and fans have made it out to be, but personally, as I found to be the case with Yeezus, Big Fish Theory, too, comes across as far less experimental than it claims to be. Whilst many genres of electronic club music, from Detroit techno to UK garage, work their way into the beats brandished over the course of the tracklisting, as do bits and bobs from various derivatives of hip hop, most notably G-funk and hip house, the overall breadth of Staples’ exploration of these stylistic underpinnings is relatively limited. Whilst this is by no means a problem in and of itself, as a hip hop album that pulls from various genres is hardly a rarity, the issue that arises in the case of Big Fish Theory relates to the fact that, with the record being so reliant on its experimental trappings, the shortage in substantial songwriting that has bogged down much of Staples’ past output becomes even more evident. Ultimately, although Vince Staples himself remains rather riveting in his frankness and his distinctive presence as a performer, Big Fish Theory can only do so much with these key strengths when its claims of experimentation are seemingly used to disguise some of the lacklustre compositional content featured over the course of the record.
On paper, the individual components that go into the making of the production across Big Fish Theory come across as rather compelling. The heavily syncopated, chopped-and-screwed vocal samples allude to an influence from footwork, as do some of the throbbing sub-bass lines that play against the sparse clangours of the rattling percussion, which also evokes some underpinnings from contemporary trap music. Similarly, many of the textured synthesizers and squelching bass grooves can be boiled down to the most fundamental tenets of G-funk, whilst the appearance of some bouncy, bubblegum bass lines on a couple of songs scream that PC Music associate SOPHIE was called in for help, just as the searing, sawtooth bass grumbles and squeaky higher frequencies point to Australian DJ Flume having stamped his hallmark on the album. Perhaps most significantly of all, however, is that, speaking as broadly as possible, there is a notable balance between principles from both mainstream and underground hip hop over the course of the record, with Staples quite regularly straddling the line between orthodoxy and experimentation. With the recipe for Big Fish Theory being comprised of so many delectable ingredients, therefore, it can be quite difficult to fathom why exactly there is a definite lack in the overall amount of riveting or refreshing tones struck across the album. There are most definitely some glimmers of innovation and ingenuity throughout the tracklisting, with the opening song, Crabs In A Bucket, fashioning a soundscape of breezy, mountaintop ambience that supports a wailing, manipulated vocal sample, a thunderous, agitated explosion of bass and a stop-start beat that accompanies Staples’ spitting. When the beat truly gets going, the track is evocative of some more underground and Internet-based offshoots of cloud rap, but the jittery drum pattern retains a definitive footwork influence, which is reflected in the aforementioned fragmentations of a soulful vocal sample. Likewise, further into the tracklisting, with SOPHIE and Flume collaborating for the production on Yeah Right, the result was bound to make for one of the more dynamic moments on the record. Indeed, with some of Flume’s signature, twinkling leads being substituted for the pummelling, fuzzed-out sub-bass gurgling underneath an industrial-flavoured trap beat and some hollow sweeps of clanging noise, Yeah Right stands as one of the most expressly abrasive and hard-hitting cuts on the record, even in spite of the two producers stepping out of their comfort zones somewhat. Even across some of the songs that follow genre conventions to the letter, there are nevertheless instances in which the production pushes past the mere superficial qualities of its stylsitic trappings and strikes some thoroughly well-worked tones. This is most obvious on the brazen G-funk worship of Big Fish, in which a typical, syncopated, buoyant bass groove plays against some watery sputters of electronics that really emphasise the contagious, bouncy quality to the song’s beat.
Yet, in spite of the occasional flares of captivating creativity, and for all the stylistic sucker punches thrown over the course of the record, numerous tracks on Big Fish Theory struggle to execute many profoundly striking or stimulating ideas. That’s not to say that there is no evidence of effort being put in to capture such sparks of exhilarating experimentation, but the extent to which some of these songs achieve their more avant-garde leanings with a compelling degree of style or skill is another matter. Taking a song like Love Can Be… as an example, although its club-orientated house underpinnings are a significant change of pace for Staples, there is little here that aims to break out into uncharted territory, rather the hollow sweeps of bouncing bass, syncopated rhythmic pattern and the soft, semi-sung, semi-rapped performance from Kilo Kish that introduces the song all merely seem to toe the line with regards to what would be expected from a hip house track. In a similar vein, and despite his effective contributions to Yeah Right, SOPHIE’s production on SAMO arguably crosses the line between being endearingly sparse and being too stripped-back to strike any interesting tones, with the rattling percussion, circling sub-bass and hollow synthesizer squeaks conforming to trap tropes to the point that the track completely lacks any evidence of the DJ’s definitive production style. Likewise, the minimal, rudimentary, bass-driven beat of the closing cut, Rain Come Down, seemingly doesn’t even strive for any arresting stylistic or compositional ideas, whilst it takes no time at all for Ty Dolla $ign’s heavily-reverbed, moaning repetition of the track’s title for a significant portion of the song’s runtime to become woefully tedious. Such examples of tracks to feature production that is nowhere near as boundary-pushing as it professes to be also allude to one of the more comprehensive problems with Big Fish Theory that pervades even many of the more engagingly experimental cuts in the tracklisting, that being the relatively colourless compositional prowess at play over the course of the record. Far too many songs on the album, whether it be Big Fish, Yeah Right, SAMO or Rain Come Down, simply cycle through a repetitive song structure that leaves little room for any interesting ideas in the production to come to full fruition, as, even if there may be a bevy of captivating sounds or tones worked into a cut, the longer the track goes on for, the less of an impact they have. There are, however, occasional oddities wherein a less conventional compositional blueprint is applied, but in a way that comes across as somewhat stilted or awkward, with Crabs In A Bucket following an almost linear format that, whilst not necessarily repetitive, fails to toy with the build up and release of tension in the way that was likely intended, with Staples simply spitting over a flatline beat. Although weak songwriting has arguably always been the most substantial kink in Vince Staples’ armour, it’s even more of a shame to see this issue hold back Big Fish Theory, given that it crops up on even some of the most potent songs of the album and of the MC’s career.
Whilst the production across Big Fish Theory is undoubtedly inconsistent, thankfully Vince Staples is easily the most consistently compelling component of the record, both in terms of his flows and overall performances. In the same way that a group such as clipping. contrast cacophonous, industrial beats with the more orthodox deliveries of frontman Daveed Diggs, much of Big Fish Theory seems to counterbalance the more abrasive and jarring production with some of Staples’ most conventional and downright catchy flows to date. Case in point, some of the rappers stickiest hooks land on his latest album, especially on the two G-funk-driven cuts, Big Fish and 745, with the refrain for the former coming courtesy of Juicy J, who comes through with his usual, Southern-fried swagger as to make for one of the most contagious moments across the entire record. Even during his verses, Staples’ flows are more punctuated than on his past projects, allowing the MC to ride some of the record’s beats with a striking sense of urgency, as is the case on the erratic, up-tempo rhythmic patterns across Homage, as well as the points across Crabs In A Bucket wherein the airy atmospheres are overrun by cascading, sawtooth synths and some restless, house-tinged percussion. Lyrically, however, although many of the rapper’s observations may seem comparatively more profound when considered in the comprehensive context of the current hip hop climate as a whole, in the context of Staples’ discography, Big Fish Theory offers more of the same when it comes to the rapper’s sober outlook on fame, money, excess and the rap game. Whilst there are by no means many instances during which Staples completely falls off and misses out on offering any level-headed insight into the idolised celebrity rapper life — even if his tendency to repeat himself becomes slightly frustrating at times, especially on Rain Come Down — it would have been infinitely more interesting if the MC matched the sonic tone shift of Big Fish Theory with a lyrical left-turn.
Ultimately, for the handful of strong and imposing ideas integrated into Big Fish Theory, much of the album seems overrun with potential that, whilst not entirely wasted, is certainly not tapped into for the greatest effect possible. Many of the harsher and more in-your-face tones of the production are overshadowed by instances in which songs simply stay comfortably in line with the canon of their stylistic underpinnings, to the point that there is an odd contrast in purpose across the tracklisting, marked by the disparity between the overtly abrasive and experimental tracks and those that seem content with adhering to genre conventions. On the more positive side of things, however, the smorgasbord of styles at play throughout the tracklisting truly allows Staples to showcase his spitting talents, both in terms of his hook-craft and his versatility when it comes down to the diversity of beats over which he can rap and to which he can seamlessly adapt. More than anything, however, it seems as if Big Fish Theory really could have advanced Staples’ artistry, but whether or not it is entirely effective in doing so is somewhat of a thorny question. Even if much of the album is pulled in all manner of directions by the numerous stylistic pursuits of each track, the project, as a whole, struggles to pinpoint any specific direction for Staples, which is reflected in the fact that he rests on his laurels in a lyrical and thematic capacity. Overall, for as much as Big Fish Theory may seem like a new chapter for Vince Staples on the surface, the substance below the surface is far too sparse to mark any defined purpose to these new pursuits for the artist.
The Vinyl Verdict: 6.5/10