With his followup to his 2015 debut Summertime ’06, it’s obvious that Long Beach rapper Vince Staples has been taking cues from his contemporaries. Influences emanating from collaborations with Damon Albarn on lead Gorillaz single Ascension and touches of grime and UK garage bleed through on Big Fish Theory, as Vince exchanges his moody West Coast sound for something far more influenced by Detroit techno, deep house, post-dubstep and UK bass. Last year’s Prima Donna EP was only a taste test – that was Vince getting his feet wet, testing the waters for his latest foray into industrial hip hop and electronic experimentalism. At times, it’s a messy and unfocused project, but Staples dares to be different, driving hip hop forward in a way that few others do.
Big Fish Theory’s greatest strength is it’s greatest weakness – there’s this sense of seeming directionless about it, always presenting new avenues and experimental atmospheres, but at the same time damaging the album’s integrity through a severe lack of focus. With producers like Sekoff, Sophie, and Flume all on board, it’s obvious that Vince has got a team of production professionals behind him – yet it feels like they’re all doing their own thing, rather than contributing to a cohesive project. Like Kanye’s The Life of Pablo, this album feels like a beautiful mess. Tracks like Big Fish or 745 play around with the clean and modern grooves of West Coast G-funk revivalism, while moments on Yeah Right or Crabs in a Bucket feel far more indebted to the sound of UK garage or the glitchy bass music of James Blake. And then there’s a multitude of songs like Rain Come Down, seemingly reinterpreting the lowkey grooves of Detroit techno and deep house.
It’s a bit of this, and a bit of that. Once again, like Kanye on 2013’s Yeezus, what draws Big Fish Theory’s twelve short but sloppy tracks together is a reliance on postmodern minimalism and rampant industrialism. Vince is far from afraid to distort club grooves and house rhythms within the lens of his noisy avant-hop – the album’s best moments are those that are equally catchy as they are jarring. SAMO’s ode to Basquiat features warped drumwork and droning bass, yet there’s an outsider music sort of appeal to it. Tracks like lead single BagBak draw on fast paced grime tropes and skittery percussion, but once again, there’s a simple sort of catchiness inherent to it.
One of Vince’s best assets is his ability to switch between flows laidback and flows aggressive at will, so it’s a shame that he isn’t doing more rapping throughout the album’s just thirty-six minutes. His effortless swagger shines, gliding over tracks as he muses on the effects of fame and his escape from the hood, but it’s really his knack for hooks that shines brightest on Big Fish Theory. There’s plenty of features and collaborators on this thing too though – Kendrick steals the show with a verse on Yeah Right, Ty Dolla $ign provides a classic flavoured hook for Rain Come Down, and Juicy J jumping on Big Fish adds some West Coast vibes on an already groovy track. Like the production, this album’s features are all over the place – there’s little that draws them together, but on their own, they work wonders.
In many ways, Big Fish Theory is a deeply confusing album. From track to track, ideas change at will, production moves all over the place, and things seem to grow more and more distorted and warped. But at it’s core, it’s obvious there’s at least some sort attempt to carve out a focal point, rooted in minimalism and industrial tendencies. Individually, a lot of these tracks really stand out, breaking new ground with its affinities to grime, dance, and bass music, but as a whole, it feels like Big Fish Theory is lacking a definite direction.