Promoting his album, “Big Fish Theory,” which was released Friday, rapper Vince Staples appeared on “The Daily Show with Trevor Noah” to discuss the project’s themes. When asked about the role of Afrofuturism in the album, Vince, in his typical deadpan manner, replies, “I like saying stuff about black people to white people.”
“So it doesn’t mean anything?” Trevor asks.
“Of course not,” Vince says, to raucous audience laughter.
I had this interview in mind while listening to the Long Beach rapper’s second studio album. After all, he’s not the type of artist to embed hidden messages or intricate themes in his work. He might even side-eye me writing this review, as if to say,
Regardless, fam, I will be writing a long-ass review, because that’s what I do. And even if Vince doesn’t intend for the album to be Afrofuturistic or artsy-fartsy, I think it’s still conceptually interesting enough to examine. So read on for my full thoughts on “Big Fish Theory,” my favorite and least favorite tracks and my final rating. Thanks for reading, as always!
1. Aquatic imagery
The big fish theory refers to the idea that a fish can only grow as big as the bowl it’s contained in. Likewise, people’s futures can be limited to what their environment allows. Throughout the album, there are songs that touch on various shades of this theory and this imagery; the first two tracks, “Crabs in a Bucket” and “Big Fish,” tackle “the black man” being brought down and “swimming upstream,” respectively. The album also ends with “BagBak,” which references the dangers of deep-sea exploration, and “Rain Come Down,” which sets up a comparison between rain and bullets.
I find the exploration of water in hip-hop really interesting (Ugly God’s “Water” notwithstanding). Mick Jenkins literally dedicates two records delving into the theme, and his song “Drowning” discusses white people’s oppression of African Americans through slavery. On “Crabs in a Bucket,” Vince similarly raps, “Nails in the black man’s hands and feet/Put him on a cross so we put him on a chain.”
Although water might be associated with purity and hope (think The Beatles’ “Yellow Submarine” and Springsteen’s “The River”), for Vince, it also evokes danger and struggle. I like that Vince is challenging the traditional interpretations of water — H2O has had it good for too long; it’s about time someone took it down a peg, I say!
2. The intersection of love and violence
For the most part, Vince appears to reject romance and love on the album, by pairing lyrics about women with lines evoking violence and physical pain. On “Love Can Be …”, he says getting involved with women leads to “Alimony money for the nails and weave/Nail me to the cross like that boy JC.” Women may literally be the death of Vince, and Staple him to the cross.*
In the second verse of “745,” Vince is similarly unenthusiastic about love, saying, “I tread light each time we speak/Play too rough might break ya heart.” He’s depicting love as a fragile idea that can be lost at any moment, and in the final part of the verse, he takes the religious imagery up a notch, to state that love is holy, it’s “a God to me,” but it’s also “real hard for me.” He’s wondering, Is love attainable, or is it just this unreachable, idyllic concept for only God to know?
The future isn’t all bleak for Vince, though. There are hints of promise in the penultimate “BagBak,” which he opens with, “This is for my future baby mama/Hope your skin is black as midnight.” Maybe someday, when Vince finds the right person, his perception of love will be rosier. However, “Rain Come Down,” the album’s final song, is less clear. After each verse, which paints gritty images of “blood on the leaves” (S/O Kanye) and “[getting] JFK’d,” there’s the chorus of “When the sun goes down … Rain come down.” Whether the rain signifies bullets and brutality, or a cleansing of the bloodshed, is up in the air.
1. Great production
With help from the likes of Zack Sekoff and Ray Brady, the album remains sonically cohesive and dark. There’s booming bass, drums and even some techno-reminiscent beats, throughout the project. The most exciting sound comes from Sekoff and Justin Vernon of Bon Iver fame on “Crabs in a Bucket,” where the two infuse the piece with vibes New Age-y enough to be fit for Bon Iver’s own experimental and electronic “22, A Million” album from last year.
2. Sleek rhymes
Vince spits slick bar after slick bar on this record, and his verses feel effortless and smooth. Especially on “BagBak,” a slapper of a tune, his confidence carries the song through to its energetic end, as he raps, “Tell the president to suck a dick, because we on now.” Preach.
1. Uneven features
Kilo Kish is featured so much here it may as well be a collab album. I’m not complaining though — time and time again, Kilo and Vince have shown that they make a fantastic duo (e.g. “Loco” off last year’s “Prima Donna” EP), and here is no exception. Kendrick, as well, brings much-needed vigor to “Yeah Right,” although outshining Vince in the process.
At the same time, the album squanders features by a slew of artists; Kučka is a distraction on “Yeah Right,” Ray J barely appears on “Love Can Be …”, and A$AP Rocky gets lost in the mix in a group chorus on “SAMO.” Why get someone when you’re not going to give them a verse of their own? Don’t do Lord Flacko dirty like that.
Vince definitely hasn’t been shy about praising Ray J in the past
2. SAMO, SAMO
“Samo,” a.k.a “same old shit,” encapsulates one of my critiques of the album. There’s not enough versatility on the project, as every tune has the same dark and moody vibe that Vince has been constructing in past works. I’m not asking for a self-love anthem à la “i,” or a smiley jam like “Caroline,” but something tonally different would be nice. The experimental “Crabs in a Bucket” is the closest we get, and the rest, while good tracks on their own, don’t touch the bar of originality the first piece sets up. Further, on tracks like “745,” Vince’s effortless, smooth rhymes occasionally dip into lazy territory, and I wish he would switch up his flow or infuse more aggression into it.
3. Thematically incomplete
The aquatic theme only appears in four songs, and the rest tangentially seem to fit within the world (or I guess fish tank) that Vince has built for the listener. But beyond that, there’s not sufficient connection between all the songs for any concept or theme to really land.
SCALE: 1 (frozen) – 10 (boiling)
RATING: 7.5 (like Wise brand chips — they taste fine, but people aren’t reppin’ them over Lay’s, my guy)
“Big Fish Theory” will give existing fans what they already like about his music: moody bangers, confident delivery and entrancing production, albeit not adding too much new stuff to the mix, which isn’t the worst thing in the world.
Thematically and comparatively, the album is neither profound enough nor more exceptional than Vince’s previous records: the bold “Prima Donna” EP and “Summertime 06,” which remains one of my favorite albums of 2015. In fact, his EP may remain Vince’s most ambitious and distinctive endeavor yet. So for now, I’m suggesting he keeps swimming to find his sonic Nemo.
- “Yeah Right” ft. Kučka & Kendrick Lamar
- “Homage” ft. Kilo Kish
- “Love Can Be …”ft. Ray J, Kilo Kish & Damon Albarn
- “Party People”