Rachel Views: Vince Staples ‘Big Fish Theory’

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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!


BIG TAKEAWAYS

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!

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i made this on MS Paint, if u couldn’t tell

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.  

STRENGTHS

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. 

WEAKNESSES

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. 

 

FINAL THOUGHTS

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. 

 

HOTTEST TRACKS

  1. “BagBak”
  2. “Yeah Right” ft. Kučka & Kendrick Lamar
  3. “Homage” ft. Kilo Kish

COLDEST TRACKS

  1. “Love Can Be …”ft. Ray J, Kilo Kish & Damon Albarn
  2. “745”
  3. “Party People”

* Too soon?

The Top 4 Unexpected Bangers of 2016

 

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As it’s been said before, 2016 turned out to be like the worst movie ever with the best soundtrack. It seemed every big name in the game came out with great music this year, from Beyoncé and Rihanna, to Drake and Chance. They made us think about important things like celebrating blackness and positivity, as well as gave us plenty of fun moments such as quoting “Hot sauce in my bag, swag” endlessly and photoshopping tiny Drakes onto various pictures.

 

Although I love seeing established artists continuing to do dope work, what’s just as cool for me are the artists and songs that no one expected to pop off in the ways they did. They keep the music game exciting and unpredictable. Who knows who will get big in 2017 and spur the next round of memes and twitter hashtags? I have no clue, and that’s the best part.

 

So continue reading for my picks of the top four unexpected bangers of 2016, and feel free to add yours! Have a great New Years and a great 2017 (or at least one better than 2016).


 

4. 1 NIGHT – Lil Yachty *

 

 

I don’t really know how to classify Lil Yachty and his unique sound. Lullaby trap? Video game hip-hop? He himself calls it “bubblegum trap,” which feels as accurate as it can get.

The fact that it’s so hard to categorize the rapper’s music is his exact appeal for me. While countless other aspiring MCs are out there imitating styles in their quest to be the next Nas or whoever, Yachty instead exudes individuality and irreverence. Just take one look at his red dreads, and you’ll see a man who does not give a fuck about normalcy.

“1 NIGHT,” which currently has 64 million views on YouTube, got a boost from Caleon Fox’s popular comedy video, “When Bae Hits You With That “So What Are We?”, which is the most 2016-thing to type ever. Both the song and the video are excellent showcases for what Yachty a.k.a. Lil Boat has to offer. The track features a unique combination of trap beats and a melody straight out of a children’s song, and the video must be seen to be believed as it’s colorful and busy to the point of insanity.

Although Lil Yachty’s rise might seem surprising to some, given that he is the personification of a Molly-induced fever dream James Franco might have at Burning Man, the rapper’s ascendance actually makes sense. His weirdness is his biggest strength, since people are tired of songs that resemble one another, so when a track like “1 NIGHT” comes along, such oddity is welcomed. No, Yachty might not tackle racial inequality or the ephemeral quality of time in his music, but he’s having fun and doing his own thing, so I’m not complaining.

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An actual still from the video so you know I’m not tripping

 

 

3. Dat $tick – Rich Chigga

This is the track that no one saw coming and made people collectively drop their jaws and ask, “This kid is how old??” and “He’s from where??”.

Rich Chigga, a.k.a. Brian Imanuel, a rapper and Viner (r.i.p. Vine) from Indonesia, blew up after he dropped “Dat $tick” early this year when he was just 16. The music video has amassed 31 million views and a remix from THE Ghostface Killah, as well as sparked necessary conversations about non-African Americans using the n-word, but most importantly, it made many people see that even a nerdy-looking Asian kid armed with a fanny pack and pink polo shirt (buttoned all the way up) can still spit straight heat.

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Tbh the only thing they’re shooting is racial stereotypes

 

 

2. Black Beatles – Rae Sremmurd with Gucci Mane

 

Although Rae Sremmurd already solidified their place in hip-hop with hits like “No Flex Zone” and “No Type,” the duo’s song “Black Beatles,” while catchy, didn’t have the immediate earworm quality that the two former tracks had. Its popularity, much like “1 NIGHT,” was thanks to virality, in this case the massive Mannequin Challenge video trend, where moving cameras captured people frozen in action while the song played in the background.

Everyone from high school sports teams, Blac Chyna in the delivery room, to Michelle Obama and the Cleveland Cavaliers (albeit in that case with a different song) have participated in the trend. And of course, Rae Sremmurd themselves did it with the audience at a concert and it is pure joy to watch.

This phenomenon is quite unexpected since I’m not totally sure why this particular song was chosen as the soundtrack for the videos, but regardless, it’s always fun to see music and social media come together for such an entertaining and lighthearted purpose.

1. Alaska – Maggie Rogers

 

 

The origin story for how this song became famous is probably the most serendipitous of this year. Singer Maggie Rogers was an NYU student participating in a master class at the university’s Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music with Pharrell, where the legendary rapper and producer listened to the students’ original projects and gave them feedback. In the video, which came out in March and has nearly 2.5 million views, Pharrell tells her that her song “Alaska,” which she wrote and produced, is “singular” in the way the Wu-Tang Clan was, and the rest is history.

Following the success of the master class, as well as the overwhelming support she received from online commenters, Rogers released an official music video for the song this October, which has racked up 2.2 million views as of now.

I feel kind of speechless reflecting on these events. I mean seriously, what are the chances that an artist would be discovered in this way on such a platform, and by Pharrell no less? Insane. But her fast ascent isn’t undeserved, and is in fact a testament to how captivating “Alaska” really is. Rogers describes it as a mix of folk and dance, and it’s exactly that. It has the soulfulness of folk mixed with dance music’s signature vivacity. The song is beautiful and lush and although the music video pales in views compared to the numbers of previously mentioned tunes, it’s definitely worth a listen (or two … or 200). It’ll make you feel like you’re floating on a cloud, which is exactly how I want to leave 2016 behind.


*Okay okay so technically the actual song came out in 2015, but the official video was released in 2016 and became popular this year. Let me live!

 

Rachel Reviews: Kendrick Lamars’ ‘untitled unmastered’

 

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When I heard, “What did the Asian say?,” I immediately looked up from the textbook I was “reading,” snapped my head up and wondered, “What did I have to say?”

This referral to outside wisdom is one way “untitled unmastered” differs from Kendrick Lamar’s “To Pimp a Butterfly,” and also one reason why I enjoyed this album. Since the tracks are those left over from TPAB recording sessions, they still explore many of the same themes — self-exploration, condemning the superficial, connecting to your roots — but the plea to other minority groups in “untitled 03 | 05.28.2013” and the minimal production were welcome differences from the last album. I liked the sparseness of “untitled 01 | 08.19.2014,” the joy of “untitled 06 | 06.30.2014” was a standout and the grooviness of “untitled 08 | 09.06.2014” was so infectious it got me to say words like “grooviness.”

“Untitled unmastered” may not be as cohesive as TPAB (for a reason), but its strength lies in its sparse production, which lets Kendrick’s masterful lyricism do the talking and reminds us that this is an artist at the top of his game, who’s still always striving to be better.


 

  1. untitled 01 | 08.19.2014

Although the first track off the album feels apocalyptic, it’s purely from the power and urgency conveyed through Kendrick’s voice, as the production is relatively minimal. His lyrics paint the unsettling picture of buildings plummeting and ground shaking, “swallowing young woman with a baby, daisies, and other flowers burning in destruction.” He has to answer to the big man upstairs: What has he done in the world to justify going to Heaven? Is “To Pimp a Butterfly” enough? Is anything he’s doing enough? Or is he just stuck, always “running in place trying to make it to church”?

  1. untitled 02 | 06.23.2014

Katt Williams has made a whole career from exploring the attitude and style of the “pimp,” but here Kendrick explores the illusions of “pimping and posing” and how the glamour and fame he’s come to know contrasts with the imagery of “pistol and poverty” from the place he comes from. If this lyrical tension isn’t enough for you to sift through, Kendrick’s flow transition in the second verse might do the trick. What a Slick Rick (I’m trying to make that expression a thing) move — effortless and cooool. After all, it’s Cornrow Kenny. How could he not be cool?

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  1. untitled 03 | 05.28.2013

Asians are wise, y’all. We’re tellin Kendrick to be peaceful, meditate and “think of your health.” You’re welcome. Many of his songs deal with looking within himself, but I enjoy that he’s turning to other people and other cultures for guidance. 

  1. untitled 04 | 08.14.2014

Remind me not to listen to this when I’m in bed. I don’t need Voldemort whispering at me while I’m trying to sleep, thank you very much. But apparently Kendrick’s whispering here is meant to represent the government, so the creepiness works. While the state is telling people that they’re to blame for their troubles (“talk about the charge you got…”), SZA’s beautiful, soulful singing represents the black community’s frustrations at being lied to and not knowing what to do. The mantra now is “head is the answer” — maybe the new “knowledge is power” — highlighting the importance of thinking for yourself. Or I might be overthinking it, and as one Rap Genius commenter eloquently pointed out, “he’s actually talking about getting dome.” Whatever works, man.

  1. untitled 05 | 09.21.2014

With lyrics like “drowned inside the lake outside away you flow,” I couldn’t help but think about Frank Ocean’s “Swim Good” and the lines: “I’m about to drive in the ocean, I’ma try to swim from somethin’ bigger than me.” Both songs explore the theme of escapism and our tendency to flee instead of dealing with our problems and the problems of society like “genocism and capitalism.” Is self-determination and control “a mirage or a facade”? Can we really control anything?

  1. untitled 06 | 06.30.2014

Not since “good kid, m.A.A.d. city” have I thought that a Kendrick album could be, to put it simply, a good time. Of course the album dealt with heavy stuff, but it was also just fun to listen to and something I could jam to in my car. And TPAB, although culturally and lyrically beautiful and important, was not always easy to listen to (as it should be), with the exception of a few songs like “i” and “King Kunta.” But after hearing the sixth song from this album, I feel like I can confidently say that “untitled unmastered” returns to the fine form of easy listening, without being as annoying as muzak. The production throughout is easy, breezy, beautiful, Covergirl. And this song, which expresses the importance of individuality over music that seems vaguely OutKast-like, is fun at its finest.

  1. untitled 07 | 2014-2016

To be honest I’d give this song 5/5 stars just for the line, “Santa’s reindeer better have some ass.” The imagery by itself is gold. But the rest of the track isn’t bad either, from the trap-sounding Part 1, all the way to the low-key third section where it’s just Kendrick and his team “jamming out” and brainstorming ideas for songs. We rarely get to see goofy, relaxed Kendrick, so it’s a nice thing to hear. Also, apparently Swizz Beatz’s son Egypt produced this song, so everyone else can officially stop sending out their resumes and accept that 5-year-olds will be taking over their jobs.

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  1. untitled 08 | 09.06.2014

I’m a little embarrassed that “This is groovy!” was the first thing that popped into my head when I heard the intro to this song, as I’m neither a character in “That 70’s Show” nor outrageously high (at this moment). But I couldn’t deny it: This song is bringing the funk. The music is bouncy and light and wouldn’t be out of place in a Yoplait commercial where there’s a bunch of white people in sweaters eating yogurt with the same enjoyment as if they were having sex. But I’d definitely prefer not to hear it in that context.


 

In keeping with the name of this blog, “The Hot Pot,” I thought I’d keep the whole temperature theme going. Gimmicky, yes, but refined has never been in my wheelhouse. Why not steer into the skid, huh?

Scale: 1 (frozen) – 10 (boiling)

Rating: 9: Satan’s butthole

I debated whether that’s actually colder than boiling, but anything involving the words “Satan’s butthole” is probably not an exact science.

All in all, the album is introspective and powerful, but Kendrick does all the talking and the production takes a back seat. That doesn’t stop it from being funky once in a while. He’s also exploring a few new territories while still tapping into the themes that we’re familiar with. I can’t wait for his next project!