Vince Staples knows what he's doing with his beat selection.
Search any comment section or social media feed that relates to Vince Staples and you'll quickly find that people care a lot about his beat selection. "this is some drum and bass shit, some euro shit, i fuck with it." "[This is] weird/experimental, not that that is a bad thing, but it's just not good sounding music in my opinion." "vince staples refuses to rap over hard beats & make gangsta rap because he doesn't wanna be put in a box so he makes horrible music instead." "vince staples always got weird ass beats but i fuck wid the movement." "i have 0 problems with edm in hip hop or with vince staples wanting to work that lane, but dayumm his beat selection is trash." "MOTHER OF GOD THIS NÜ VINCE STAPLES ALBUM IS MORE THAN I COULDA EVER DREAMED OF. THIS IS A MASTERCLASS IN BEAT SELECTION. GOT ME FUCKED UP." But like every other opinion that his fans and haters have about him, Vince Staples has made it clear that he'll ignore it and do what he wants. As he recently summed it up for Pitchfork, "People want a lot of things. I don’t care what people want."
Although that's always been the message Staples has presented in interviews and on social media, his attitude towards listeners' ears didn't really cause a major fuss until last year's Prima Donna EP, which among other "weird ass beats" included an Andre 3000 "Rosa Parks" sample chopped up in the style of Chicago footwork, a Black Keys-or-Jack White-esque bluesy guitar riff, and a standard drum-n-bass breakbeat. The sound was being pulled in more electronic and rock-leaning directions than Staples' past projects, but it wasn't a complete transformation-- the one-two punch of the slow-rolling title track and the No I.D.-produced "Pimp Hand" kept things linked back to his slightly more conventional 2015 opus, Summertime '06.
On Big Fish Theory, Staples has fully devoted himself to a new sound, one that specifically pulls from his most electronic-adjacent past work. “We making future music," the 23-year-old recently told LA Weekly. The most illustrative reaction to Vince hopping out of proverbial Delorean has to be YouTube reviewer Big Quint's first listen to slow-building opening track "Crabs in a Bucket." "He's doing some other shit now. Okay, I'm intrigued," says Quint after a series of expressive but mostly wordless exclamations. Big Fish is, by and large, some other shit-- house-rap that's about as far removed from its corny '80s beginnings as possible, depressive minimalism, sobering party music. Search hip hop's margins and you won't find too much that sounds like this. Its closest sonic forebears are Detroit house, UK garage, industrial, and perhaps hyphy, but nobody's ever combined them all and then rapped like this over the top of it.
A line in "Party People" best sums up the overall mood: “Move your body if you came here to party/If not then pardon me/How I’m supposed to have a good time when death and destruction’s all I see?” As we know from Staples' past work, his Long Beach upbringing has shown him that "young graves get the bouquets" in the "city where the skinny carry strong heat," and that danger and grisly realism has informed his music to such a degree that imagining him dropping it all now is impossible, even when faced with such a shift in musical styles. Lest we forget, Staples is also sober, so the idea of him making the standard rap/electronic crossover, party EDM album is laughable. Instead, Big Fish Theory directly counteracts prevailing notions of electronic music among non-listeners, the "I don't usually listen to DJs but I like rolling at raves" set, presenting them with something they could dance to, but may not want to upon closer examination.
Every time it seems like a Big Fish Theory song is about to slip into gleeful abandon, it gets snatched by the ankles and dragged down to 3,230 feet. "Big Fish" has the most standard EDM buildup of any track, and patron saint of debauchery Juicy J rapping about late nights balling and counting stacks, but it soon also has Staples contemplating stress-induced suicide ("Swimming upstream while I'm tryna keep my bread/From the sharks make me wanna put the hammer to my head"). On the otherwise uplifting "Homage," whose hook liberally cribs from Rick Ross' "Hold Me Back," Staples compares himself to River Phoenix's character in Running On Empty, a film about a family of fugitives on the run. Even among the escapist pleasures such as money, women, and shit-hot electronic beats, Staples' gritty realism filters through.
These themes, profit and struggle, dovetail into a decidedly Pro-Black message that apart from Big Fish Theory's sound, is the album's most unifying attribute. Right after telling LA Weekly that the project was "future music," Staples went on, saying, "It’s Afro-futurism. This is my Afro-futurism. There’s no other kind.” Tales of oppression directly inform the pursuit of glory and riches ("Nails in the black man's hands and feet/Put him on a cross so we put him on a chain"), where reparations are acquired directly from the hands of the proverbial "white man" or "they" as in, "Won't go 'less they overpay us." Beyond this classic message of uplift, the album also celebrates black icons, from shoutouts to E-40, Damon Wayans, Ol' Dirty Bastard, and Snoop Dogg, to interpolations of Gorilla Zoe, Rick Ross, and Future, to a guest appearance by one of Staples' personal heroes, Ray J.
While the front of the house serves up this message, the behind-the-scenes crew on Big Fish Theory is largely white. In addition to several white producers, Justin Vernon and Damon Albarn pop up for barely-there guest appearances. The album's sound may have its roots in music scenes that began as predominantly black spaces, but it's executed by offspring that reflect the whitewashed images the genres have taken on in later years.
This, I think, is the album's boldest act of seeking reparations: reclaiming sounds commonly thought of as "white" these days, and mostly silencing all non-black voices (save for Amy Winehouse on "Alyssa Interlude"). The album shows us that dance music isn't all Electric Daisy Carnival-style hedonism-- it too has a history that's just as marked by poverty and police profiling as hip hop-- and it doesn't even have to address that directly. By just putting these two worlds in conversation with each other, Staples has let his beat selection speak for itself. He won't ever address this in interviews, as he strongly prefers to let listeners interpret his music themselves, but by forcing glitchy, grimy dance music on hip hop listeners, and by (hopefully) attracting EDM fans to music with such harrowing lyrics, he pulls off cultural collision like no Linkin Park/Jay Z mashup album ever could. Some Vince Staples fans will hate the beats, and some electronic fans will be turned off by the lyrics, but Big Fish Theory's mad experiment is well worth whatever backlash it receives.