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Two Reviews of Vince Staples’s ‘FM!,’ the Rap Album of the Year

The Long Beach rapper’s latest project is a tightly wound, perfectly written 22-minute masterpiece—but first, a story

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

What follows are two reviews of the new Vince Staples album, FM!, which he released last Friday. If you’re very busy today, I might encourage you to jump past the first one and just read the second one. I say so because the second one is a straight-line review of the album and only about 250 or so words. The first one, however, is not only considerably longer (more than five times longer, in fact), but also it’s probably not even really a review of the album (even though it definitely is). Thank you.

The First Review

A boy is walking down the street, and I’m going to talk about this boy for the next few minutes so we should probably go ahead and give him a name. Let’s say his name is Rafael. We’re not going to call him that, though. We’re going to call him Rafa, because that’s what everyone calls him. He’s Rafael, but really he’s Rafa. It’s one of those situations.

So, to restart: Rafa is walking down the street. The street is in a city that’s fine, but in a neighborhood that’s bad. Very bad, in fact. The kind of very bad that you see in movies that not-poor people like to watch because they’re fascinated by the idea of humans having to exist in that kind of space. The kind of very bad where everything there always feels a little different than in other places; the heat, the cold, the rain, the air, all of it. The kind of very bad where walking down the street can very quickly turn into something far more harrowing; potentially dangerous, possibly fatal. And Rafa knows this. But Rafa has a thing he has to do. And he doesn’t have a car. And so, again, I’m going to tell you for a third time: Rafa is walking down the street.

He’s headed somewhere to meet a person about a thing. The person and the thing are inconsequential, insomuch as they will only be mentioned here again once. They only exist right now to serve as a blurry explanation for why Rafa is on the move on this day. Which is why, for a fourth time, I’m going to tell you: Rafa is walking down the street.

Half a mile into his walk, Rafa sees a person he knows. It’s Anthony. The two go to the same school. They’re in the same grade (10th) but don’t have any classes together because Rafa is not that smart and Anthony is very smart. Everyone calls Anthony “Ant,” but he hates that, so you and I are going to call him “Anthony.” Rafa, however, is still going to call him “Ant,” because they’ve known each other for several years and that’s how being friends works sometimes. “Ant! What’s up, bro?” asks Rafa, except he says it in Spanish and also he’s not really asking him what’s up, he’s just saying hello. Anthony says hello back to him, then explains that his mother has asked him to go a few blocks over to meet a woman named Lupe. Lupe is going to give Anthony $50 in food stamps in exchange for the actual $25 he has in his pocket.

A quick aside: This is all taking place years and years and years ago, back when the phrase “food stamps” referred to a literal booklet of fake money that people would use to buy food. The booklet would show up at your house from the government once a month. You could only use the stamps to buy certain things—milk, eggs, cheese, bread, some brands of baby formula (but not all brands of baby formula), things like that. Today, in 2018, the way they do it is you have what’s basically a debit card that gets reloaded each month. The government switched to the cards sometime in the late ’90s for several reasons, one of which was to curtail theft— which, in a manner of speaking, is what Anthony and his mother were partaking in at that moment. The way the hustle worked was simple: Since food stamps could only be used to buy a handful of things, people would often trade them for real money. The exchange rate was one real dollar for every two food-stamp dollars. A person would trade, say, $60 in food stamps for $30 in real money, because they could use that $30 to buy whatever they wanted, not just groceries. (More often than not, people would use the real money to buy beer or cigarettes or whatever, though obviously not always.) So one person would get to buy the thing (or things) they actually wanted, and the other person would be able to double their grocery money. It was a fair arrangement for everyone. But to get back to the story:

Lupe is going to give Anthony $50 in food stamps in exchange for the actual $25 he has in his pocket. That’s where he’s headed. And his mother wants him back quick so she can go to the store and be back in time so that dinner will get served at a reasonable hour. Were that not the case, he’d walk with Rafa wherever Rafa is going. But it is the case. So he doesn’t. “I’ll catch up with you later,” says Anthony, walking in the other direction. “Alright,” says Rafa.

Rafa takes a few steps, then he stops. He turns around. “Ant!” he shouts. Anthony turns around. Rafa tells him to watch out for King, a large and angry dog. “He was off his leash again earlier. He’s around here somewhere.” Anthony shakes his head. “Shit,” he says to himself.

Rafa walks and walks and walks. And then he walks and walks and walks some more. And then he walks and walks and walks even more. And then, fucking finally, he gets to where he’s going. And everything is fine and the day is fine and Rafa takes care of the thing with the person that he was supposed to and so now he’s walking home. It is, at most, two hours later from when he’d first started walking.

As Rafa walks back home, he decides to go by Anthony’s house. He knows how the food-stamp hustle works (his mother does it too), and so he’s hoping that Anthony’s mother has already taken the food stamps and bought new groceries and is either (a) cooking right now, or (b) has already finished cooking, both of which would mean that he’d be able to get something to eat. He knocks on the door. Anthony’s mother answers. Rafa says hello. She says hello back, but in a way where it’s clear that she’s annoyed. Rafa, too nervous and also too polite to just ask for food, asks whether Anthony’s around. She says no, that he left, at most, two hours ago, and that he’s not gotten home yet. “He was supposed to go see Lupe and then come back home. When you see him, tell him I’m looking for him. If he spent my money again, it’s gonna be a problem.” One time several months earlier, she’d given him $20 to trade for $40 in food stamps. He didn’t, though. He stopped at the corner store and spent $2 on candy, then panicked and spent the rest on candy, too. Rafa knows exactly what she was talking about. “I don’t know what that means, but I’ll tell him when I see him.”

Only but here’s the thing: Rafa saw him again, but he couldn’t tell him anything. Or at least not anything that Anthony could hear. Because the next time Rafa saw Anthony, it was at Anthony’s funeral. Turns out, Anthony had continued walking toward Lupe’s house like he was supposed to after he’d happened across Rafa, but he got hit by a car on the way there. Nobody knew why he was in the street when he got hit, or why the driver was going as fast as he was when he hit him. Everybody just knew that it happened. Everybody just knew that Anthony got hit and then he was dead. Everybody just knew that he was 16 years old and then he was dead. That was the story. That was the whole, entire story.

There was no grand meaning to it or any symbolism tucked into it or any real reason that it had to happen. Again: It just happened. “Bad shit happens sometimes” is what people would say in the days after. “And in weird, horrible, awful ways sometimes.” It sounds morbid, but if Anthony had, say, gotten shot, it’d have at least made sense to Rafa. It’d have still been painful, yes, but it’d have been a recognizable pain. A pain where you’d say, “Well, yeah, of course that happened. Take a look around.” This wasn’t that, though. This was a new thing. And it was so much worse, somehow. Even if it was exactly the same. Death is death. But not really.

Rafa heard that someone took the $25 out of Anthony’s pocket while his body lay there dead before the police arrived. He didn’t know if that was true or not, but he heard it happened.

Vince Staples has a new album out. It’s called FM!. It is really fucking good.

The Second Review

Vince Staples has a new album out. It’s called FM!. It’s really fucking good. It’s smart, and biting, and funny, and challenging, and a top-level examination of the caustic (and casual) existence of violence and death in an overlooked corner of America.

Vince leans on you for the entirety of the album’s 22-minute run time, either directly or in spirit. And I know that 22 minutes sounds like way too short of a time length for an album, and in the hands of most any other artist it might be, but not in Vince’s. He is a master of the economy of motion. There are moments when his words (almost all of which are dedicated to discussing the most sandpapery parts of a hard life in the most insightful and clever way possible) are wound so tightly and are so perfectly written and performed that it’s overwhelming. (The second half of the second verse of “Run the Bands” might be the most brilliant rapping moment of what has become his brilliant rapping career.) And there are moments when what he is doing and saying are so seamlessly sewn together with what producer Kenny Beats is doing that it feels like all of the pieces of the song—the words, the production, the ethos, etc.—are somehow all coming out of Vince’s mouth, or brain, or body, or eyeballs, or any combination of those four things.

Vince is inspired on FM!. It is, in all likelihood, the best rap album of the year.