Snowfall, John Singleton, Dave Andron, and Eric Amadio's ambitious new FX drama premiering tonight, spins a trio of connected yarns about crack’s route to Los Angeles during the early 1980s. It extends from the CIA’s involvement all the way down to the South Central streets that, like many other urban environments across the U.S., would soon be ravaged by the drug. The strongest thread involves the enterprising Franklin Saint (Damson Idris), a whip-smart 19-year-old who could easily be the sharpest student in any undergraduate economics class. Instead, he transitions from selling weed with his uncle (Amin Joseph) to flipping kilos of cocaine for his Israeli supplier (Alon Aboutboul). He considers himself an ascendant entrepreneur, failing to realize that each power move places him closer to the point of no return. Selling drugs is an acutely risky startup operation, but Franklin takes the chance because he genuinely believes it’s the fastest track to a life far above and beyond the confines of his existence. “Strength in the mind” is his motto, and he’s convinced selling drugs is the best use of his most powerful weapon. If only he could apply it similar to someone else who escaped the belly of the beast via mental fortitude: Vince Staples.
Thriving as the diamond in the rough inspired the Long Beach, Calif. rapper’s new album, Big Fish Theory. “Being larger than life in a smaller world, so to say,” he told Complex earlier this year of its concept. As much as the album stretches the limits of the “smaller facilitative space” hip-hop’s allowed to occupy, it also speaks to the marginalization of the disenfranchised. Fierce intelligence, which distinguishes Staples and Franklin as the “big fish,” is their vehicle to better lives. Snowfall, like Big Fish Theory, deals with the new challenges both face as they swim upstream: more money, more problems. But where Big Fish Theory finds Staples getting further from the past misfortune he described in vivid detail on 2015’s Summertime ‘06, Snowfall finds Franklin plummeting deeper into the abyss. The deeper he gets, the more you hope he has the life-saving epiphany Staples did.
Shrewd thinking, commitment to sobriety, and singular focus on success both bind Franklin Saint and Vince Staples and separate them from their peers. Sadly, both have been drawn into dangerous territory: for Franklin, the fast, life-changing money that comes from selling crack. For Staples, the deadly lure of gang culture. “I started gangbanging because I wanted to kill people,” he told The Guardian in 2015. “I wanted to hurt people. There’s no reason: it’s a bloodthirst. The same reason people join the army: because they want to kill."
Staples speaks with a brevity that would impress the finest law professors. It’s real intelligence—an advanced understanding that belies his 24 years on the planet. (His recent interview on Hot 97's Ebro in the Morning is but the latest glorious exhibition.) Staples' trademark sagacity is Big Fish Theory's lifeblood, manifesting as cynicism towards “the good life.” “Yeah Right” mocks the benchmarks used to gauge rappers' success. “Party People” is heavy with disillusionment: “False bravado all masked by wealth,” he says.
As jaded as Staples sounds, his route is still undeniably favorable to Franklin's illicit journey. The lesson that opulence is no substitute for peace of mind awaits him just beyond the smokescreen of dirty money.
Franklin uses his acumen to plunge deeper into the underworld at about the same age Staples was when music began changing his life. “Here’s a kid who, forgetting about drugs for a minute, is extremely bright and focused on being an entrepreneur,” Andron, who also oversaw Justified’s success, says of Franklin. “He could’ve gone out and done any number of things, but, unfortunately, he chooses this path without having any idea of what it’ll do to the people he loves.”
The more we learn about Franklin, the more his descent makes sense. His hard-working, unsuspecting mother (Michael Hyatt) sent him to high school in the San Fernando Valley where he was exposed to a vastly different lifestyle than what he saw in South Central. He navigated that larger pond deftly, but the prosperity gap stuck with him.
“I think [the Valley] opened him up to seeing what the possibility was if he had disposable income and wealth,” says Singleton, who describes Franklin as a composite of people he knew growing up. “That changed him; he hadn’t even thought about that until he saw it.”
Nevertheless, Franklin wasn't comfortable as the fly in the milk. His experience at a predominantly white high school wasn’t as negative as Staples’ was (a 2016 FADER cover story says he was expelled for allegedly stealing a cell phone despite several witnesses saying otherwise), but he was constantly reminded of the privilege he’d never have. Becoming best friends with all of his teachers didn’t stop Franklin from feeling like an outsider. Being crowned prom king only made him feel like a mascot, and he bailed on college because he’s certain it’s just a macrocosm of the same. And, opposite to Boyz n the Hood's Trey Styles, he won’t consider a historically black college because it would take him to the other side of the country, far away from everything he’s familiar with. He doesn’t want to leave anything—or anyone—behind. “Smile,” from Staples' 2016 Prima Donna EP, echoes the guilt Franklin hopes to never feel: “I turned my back on my friends/ I turned my back on my home/ I left the street where I’ve grown/ To chase the yellow brick road.”
“Why should he have to leave the community that he knows and feels comfortable in favor of this white world?” Andron says, explaining Franklin’s mentality. “I think there’s a lot of anger and resentment that he hides very well, but I think he has this chip on his shoulder and really wants to do things his way.”
As driven as Franklin is to do things his way, he quickly learns that bigger obstacles accompany bigger scores. So when faced with a high-risk, high-reward situation versus the terrifyingly palpable possibility of failure, he rolls the dice. That’s the tragedy of marginalization: it incarcerates physically and mentally, so even if someone has an intangible that designates them as exceptional, they still feel restricted by their situation. As Franklin says, the game of life is rigged to keep black people from advancing. That truth mirrors Staples’ explanation for how the oppressed are subdued from birth.
“I just want to help people understand that we don’t get to pick, bro,” he told The FADER in 2015. “We [didn't] get to pick where we was from. That ain’t how it works. How does it stop? If we knew how it would stop, it would stop. I know that no one really wants to go to jail for life.”
Staples used his gift to elude the outcome of a lifestyle that could have easily landed him in jail or a morgue. He’s proof that a beautiful mind can blossom from infertile land. What’s more, he knows others can do the same. “The next Bill Gates could be on Section 8 up in the projects,” he stresses on Big Fish Theory’s “BagBak.” Franklin may fashion himself a businessman, but the blinding glow of affluence—specifically, what he's willing to do to attain it—will likely rob him of the freedom he seeks. The unfortunate reality of Snowfall is that Franklin doesn't see a better alternative and how it skews his brilliance as a result.
Snowfall shows the influence of the crack epidemic on society and culture, from the government to the communities it destroyed. From NWA’s “Dope Man” to Vince Staples’ “Dopeman.” And, sadly, it shows what can happen to the gifted when all they see are closed doors. “As moral as Franklin is at the beginning, that strong sense of morality is whittled away little by little,” Singleton says. Both Big Fish Theory and Snowfall address the new struggles highly-intelligent people face while succeeding along divergent paths. As the latter progresses, you pray Franklin makes a semi-clean getaway like Staples. However, we know how the law treated crack dealers 30 years ago. We know more are dead or in jail than off doing TED talks or writing memoirs. So as much as we hope he becomes a success story rather than a cautionary tale, we know the odds aren't on his side.