If you open an internet browser today—on your phone, on one of those sample computers at the Apple store, on a smart fridge—you’ll be able to navigate, in four or five clicks, to a song by a young rapper who sounds like he’s from Memphis even though he’s not from Memphis and perhaps has never set foot in Memphis. You don’t even have to type in any keywords to do this. For a half-decade now, underground and (to a lesser, but still evident degree) mainstream rap music has been heavily influenced by the aesthetics of mid-1990s Tennessee. Teenagers who were born in Seattle or St. Paul after 9/11 can osmose Mystic Stylez through their friends or through the Migos or through SpaceGhostPurrp, if they have sisters old enough to remember SpaceGhostPurrp.
Vince Staples never sounded like he’s from Memphis. He was never channeling Three 6 Mafia on SoundCloud. When he and Purrp were on the peripheries of underground rap—Purrp building a YouTube fortress from South Florida, Vince slipping in and out of Odd Future’s horrorcore and the residue of jerkin’—mainstream hip-hop was just beginning to transition away from Lex Luger. In 2017, Vince is something close to a star, though he often seems to be more famous than his music is. His work very seldom seems to be in conversation with the rest of the noise in your internet browser. And he still doesn’t sound like he’s from Memphis. So when he summons Juicy J for hook duties on “Big Fish,” the single from his new album, there’s no stylistic immersion, no mimicry. He simply isolates what he needs and discards everything else.
Vince’s second album for Def Jam, Big Fish Theory, has about as much in common with his last EP, Prima Donna, as Prima Donna had with his debut album, Summertime ‘06. Which is to say: not very much. This is a dance record, almost self-consciously so, with various styles from Detroit and London mutated for the Southern reaches of L.A. county: "Crabs In A Bucket" is a muddled 2-step beat that recalls circa-2007 Burial, "Yeah Right" is a vicious, metallic piece from the nihilistic pop deconstructionist Sophie. Neither beat sound like anything else in popular rap. Vince takes to both naturally. “Big Fish,” that Juicy J-assisted single, is the thesis of the album—he talks about stress and mortality in the past tense, but the song’s too urgent, too frenetic to believe he’s really left it behind.
There are two threads to follow in Vince’s writing. The first casts Big Fish Theory as a breakup album. “Alyssa Interlude,” which lifts nearly sixty seconds from an Amy Winehouse interview, is soaked in the most painful kind of nostalgia; Vince sings, “Sometimes people disappear/Think that was my biggest fear/I should have protected you.” That disappearance doesn’t have to be a fizzling romance, of course—it could be death. But the way Vince (and Amy) describe it, it’s indistinguishable. In the interview that opens the song, Winehouse talks about her own fractured relationship as if it were a drug, one she needed to come down from for long enough to shake the raw emotion and find some clarity. A brilliant musician in her own right, Amy Winehouse’s public image has become inextricable from the substance abuse that eventually took her life. Just as he did with Juicy J, Vince—sober in every sense—finds the thread that ties his life to hers, discarding all the clashing clutter.
On the next song, “Love Can Be…,” he and Kilo Kish flit between the sincerity that you need to fall in love and the callousness that creeps in after the breakup. Even when the scale is tipped toward the latter, Vince grounds his writing in a genuine hope for love and stability: “Never finna weekend-raise my seed.” (If that’s not romantic enough, Ray J drops by to do the bridge.) Then on “745,” Vince drones out the most pained phrase on the entire album, over and over again: “All my life, pretty women done told me lies.”
The other thread that runs through Big Fish Theory is the one Vince articulated on early leak “BagBak”: “So ‘til they love my dark skin, bitch, I’m goin’ all in.” On Twitter and in interviews, Vince has described this LP as Afrofuturism, and while he’s certainly arranged house and 2-step in a forward-thinking way, Afrofuturism serves here as less a genre tag and more of a worldview. He demands that the integration of national politics go further than Obama, he snatches VMAs off of the podium. On the album’s opener, “Crabs in a Bucket,” he conjures white women at rap shows—just like on “Lift Me Up,” the opening cut from Summertime ‘06. By invoking race so early in the proceedings, he reminds the listener that all his conflicting feelings about his own celebrity (“Ain’t I looking lovely on the TV screen?”) can and should be filtered through the lens of his being a Black man in America.
Big Fish Theory is a more restrained record than Summertime ‘06, especially where that pertains to Vince’s writing. There’s no “Norf Norf” here, and in fact there are very few showcases for his superlative rapping abilities. (Kendrick Lamar’s cameo on “Yeah Right” is set up as the show-stopping display of virtuosity, the way Kendrick has sometimes set up guests—MC Eiht, Jay Rock—on his own records.) He tends toward polished, compact phrases delivered in carefully chosen rhythms. The album’s bleakest writing comes on “Party People,” where hints of suicide and visions of handcuffed, murdered Black men are made perversely danceable.
There is one thing that ties the two albums together: seagulls. The squawks that signified Long Beach in 2015 fly back this year, but when they circle overhead, on an interlude called “Ramona Park Is Yankee Stadium,” they do so in a rainstorm. Vince’s hometown is the continent’s second-busiest container port; it’s adjacent to Compton and Carson and about an hour from downtown Los Angeles. There are lavish beachfront estates and an ever-expanding downtown core, which seal the coastline off from the middle- and lower-middle-class neighborhoods a few blocks inland, neighborhoods that are beginning to gentrify and push generations-long residents further North and further East. Ramona Park itself already feels worlds away from the Pacific.
The fact that this LP contains fewer references to Vince’s Crip ties (aside from those Yankee hats, of course) doesn’t make it any less specific to where he grew up. Big Fish Theory is a lean, smartly constructed meditation on fame, race, and heartbreak. It just so happens to be fixated on the near future, one that Vince renders in grim, sometimes pessimistic detail. What buoys the record—what’s made all of his work, dating back to the Shyne Coldchain days, so moving—is his firm belief that through grit and focus and sheer talent, he can affect a little bit of change, if only over his remote corner of the country.