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Vince Staples Asks Questions, Too

On ‘Big Fish Theory,’ the rapper’s compact second studio album, Staples ponders death, destruction, and market-price oysters with his trademark insight and humor

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

The third-to-last song on Vince Staples’s Big Fish Theory, released Friday, is called “Party People.” At first blush, the song is strange — which here is not anywhere close to meaning “bad”; it is very, very good in fact — for a few reasons. Vince Staples doesn’t party, to begin with. He doesn’t smoke or drink or use any other means of escape to an altered, less present state. The kind that makes leaving the house seem like a good idea, I mean. Secondly, “Party People” is tinny, morose, and industrial, but with a pace more frantic than anything on last summer’s Prima Donna EP. It sounds like a remnant from the early aughts when UK garage (pronounced gare-ridge; I’ll never get used to it) suffered a midlife crisis soon after finding mainstream success. It started stepping out in darker, baggier clothes, hanging out in cramped basements, calling itself “grime.” “Party People” could be that, but those drums — which somehow exist both in the past and the distant future at the same time — could also be Detroit techno.

The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle, but “Party People” is also despairing. It’s none of my business whether or not he wants to be, but Staples is here, still finding it hard to stop thinking about black erasure, the black cats he sees in the daytime, and first-class seats just being overrated. This is his fourth project in three years (the others, in order: Hell Can Wait, Summertime ’06, Prima Donna). He should be celebrating his impossibly high approval rating and ridiculous prolificacy. But instead Vince wonders, “How I’m supposed to have a good time / When death and destruction is all I see?”

On Theory, and as ever, there’s no hand-holding. Asked to explain that line in a recent and thoroughly entertaining interview with Pitchfork, Staples asserted that it’s not a line, but a genuine question. And why would he ask a question he could already answer for himself? You answer it. He’s busy trying to figure out what to do with fame. Or rather, how best to survive it. As made abundantly clear by both the paranoiac Prima Donna short film and Theory’s second single, “Big Fish,” neither critical acclaim nor world renown is strong enough to lift his spirits:

Speaking with Vulture earlier this week about what shape Theory would take, Staples said he’d been listening to “Guidance,” Travis Scott’s predictable foray into soca on 2016’s Birds in the Trap Sing McKnight, every day.

That may well be, but he had to have also been listening to Moodymann and Underground Resistance. Big Fish Theory is an impatient 12-song sprint. If it is dance music, it’s the kind of dance music best suited for the places people end up (packed warehouses on the outskirts of town) rather than the places people would normally consider destinations (all of which close at 2 a.m.). That’s owed mostly to Westside Ty, who’s been with Staples at least since Def Jam, and Zack Sekoff, both producer and product of Los Angeles’s low end beat culture. Together, aided by a bevy of intrepid 20-something beatmakers like Sophie, GTA, and Flume, they crafted a sound that feels appropriately urgent for Vince and his missives on class and racial politics, both of which the North Long Beach rapper claims to never think about. Then again, who would want to shoulder the weight of being the voice of reason for an entire generation? It sounds exhausting.

Rapping in athletic four-bar runs over “BagBak” — produced by Ray Brady, who is not a 20-something, but has worked with both the Black Eyed Peas and Santigold — Staples broaches gentrification, profiling, and mass incarceration, though it’s nothing so tedious as “conscious” rap. He screeches about not voting as if water is filling the main cabin, rivets bursting from a hull under too many atmospheres of pressure. Speaking of submarines, he’s never seen The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou. And “it looks horrible.”

Vince Staples is still the guy who bats cleanup in the roasting session, and Big Fish Theory is not without its jokes. He goes to a date at the oyster bar and gapes at the bill (“745”). He says “My dick is strict for procreation” (“Party People”). The playfulness of a line like “Clap your hands if the police ever profiled” (“BagBak”) is both hilarious and dark; it’s the kind of gallows humor that’s won Vince a wide-ranging audience that constantly asks him for his two cents. (And with reason; it’s usually pretty good.) On “Love Can Be…,” Kilo Kish flutters around Vince, playing the part of a woman concerned less with the music than the lifestyle hanging off of it. Staples then borrows what I sometimes believe to be the actual realest shit Jeezy ever wrote: “I’ll never let a bitch Lil’ Bow Wow me!” Kish breezes gorgeously in and out of “Homage” and “Crabs in a Bucket” as well. But aside from Kish’s three holographic dispatches and Ty Dolla $ign reprising his Kiss Me Thru The CB role in a different song about feeling alone when you’re with people, it’s easy to miss some of the other big names. A$AP Rocky says two words on “Samo.” I need help finding Justin Vernon.

Kendrick Lamar, on the other hand, is very easy to spot. On “Yeah Right,” which bites its thumb at rappers who wear loaned jewelry and don’t really own the cars they jail pose in front of on Instagram. The beat — the work of Sophie and Flume — sounds like a fighter jet turning into Starscream. It’s metallic, massive, and scary. Kendrick, who is a ruthless bully when he chooses to be, grabbed this beat by the ankles and shook out all its lunch money. Then, he gave it a swirly for good measure:

At the album listening event this past Wednesday at downtown Los Angeles’s Mrs. Fish, I saw two guys doing the default bench celebration (you know, the one where you’re just holding each other back). But instead of a dunk it was that Damon Wayans line that elicited the reaction.

I also saw Vince, but he was gone before I got a chance to talk to him about “Alyssa Interlude.” See, it begins with a sound bite from an Amy Winehouse interview that took place at one point in her cruelly public downward spiral: “I’m quite a self-destructive person,” she says, “so I guess / I guess if you give me some material.” I wanted to ask Vince if he’d seen that clip of Amy Winehouse, aged just 14, singing “Happy Birthday” to a friend. Just to know if he ever rankled over how happy she seemed at the time; how Blake Fielder-Civil and drug addiction were such a long way off. Would I be correct in assuming he’s growing increasingly dissatisfied with the world and most things in it? That he thinks about life’s impermanence more than most people? He might have given me a glimpse into why he tacked on that overwhelming David Ruffin sample to the end of the track. Maybe. But I’m pretty sure he left four or five songs into the listening.

The album is 36 minutes long, by the way. He doesn’t seem to have much time to waste these days.