This is Music Mondays, a weekly music column. This week, it’s a new album review!
Vince Staples, “Big Fish Theory” Review
Vince Staples’ sophomore album “Big Fish Theory” is a very good album. It’s elevated by strong verses, unique beats, and great features, but it’s also held back from greatness due to its lack of narrative focus.
Looking at the best rap albums released thus far in 2017, Joey Bada$$’ “All-Amerikkkan Badass” was a post-Trump statement on racism and the United States. Kendrick Lamar’s “Damn” was an examination of life at the top, including the loneliness, pride, and public scrutinization that comes with it.
Vince Staples’ “Big Fish Theory” isn’t so simple, and its failure to communicate its big idea is its big mistake. It tackles fame, lost love, post-Trump America, and his gang background. It covers all of these things in an interesting way, but these various topics make the album seem like it’s missing a point.
The so-called “point” of the album only becomes clear when looking at the big picture of “Big Fish Theory”, and it’s referenced in the title. “Big Fish Theory” comes from the idea that fish are only capable of growing as big as their bowl allows them. Similarly, Vince feels held back. This album examines each of these things, including human nature, his love life, his color, and his history in gang life.
Put together, it paints a picture of a very complicated and conflicted man. To start with his love life, Vince raps about a breakup in the first half of the record. On the interludes “Alyssa Interlude” (featuring an Amy Winehouse interview) and “Ramona Park is Yankee Stadium”, Vince is longing for a lost love who is “so far away”.
“Loved that song when we were kids, now it makes me want you here. Sometimes, people disappear; think that was my biggest fear. I should have protected you. Sometimes, I wish it would rain,” he says on “Alyssa Interlude”.
And rain it does on the closer “Rain Come Down”, where Vince says “Never need a girl to love me, I just need ‘em fine”.
Vince is clearly scorned by love, and the same can be said about Vince and people in general. The opener’s title “Crabs in a Bucket” comes from crabs clamoring over each other trying to get out of a bucket, only to bring each other down. Vince has a similar view of people.
Despite this depiction of human nature, Vince celebrates his success in the next track, “Big Fish”. While this song has him “so far” from his “past misfortune”, Vince is still weighed down by his Long Beach gang background, which, much like his love life, further paints him as a complicated figure. “Where I’m from, we don’t run; we just roll with the heat. I’m the back of the bus, take a seat. Take a ride on the side where we die in the street,” Vince says on “Rain Come Down”.
Just as love and his gang background hold him back, so does his color. “Battle with the white man day by day. Feds takin’ pictures doing play by play. They don’t ever want to see the black man eat. Nails in the black man’s hands and feet,” Vince says on “Crabs in a Bucket”.
While Vince sounds very downtrodden on this track, he shows some signs of hopefulness. On “BagBak”, Vince says “Obama ain’t enough for me, we only getting started. The next Bill Gates can be on Section 8 up in the projects… Clap your hands if the police ever profiled. You ain’t gotta worry. Don’t be scary ‘cause we on now, ain’t no gentrifying us. We finna buy the whole town”.
As heard in “Big Fish Theory”, Vince is not a simple man. He raps about many things on the record, and only after a deep analysis does it become clear that they are connected to this bigger idea of a “Big Fish”.
Vince feels like he is being held back by so many things, but this isn’t clear on the album. It took me an hour of lyrical analysis on Genius to put the pieces of “Big Fish Theory” together. This album lacks a lyrical glue to tie these ideas together, and unless the listener is willing to put in the grunt work to figure it out, “Big Fish Theory” just sounds like it’s an album made up of disparate ideas.
This narrative shortcoming is the glaring flaw in “Big Fish Theory”, but so much of the album is great. Its dark and brooding electronic trap beats sound very different than most beats in the current rap genre. “Love Can Be” has satisfyingly loud crash symbols and hi-hats. As detailed in the album’s description, “Crabs in a Bucket” fits in the electronic soundscape of Bon Iver’s “22, A Million”.
While some may find the sounds on “Big Fish Theory” off-putting, they work in making the album stand out. There are some true bangers on this album too, like the fantastic “Big Fish”, “Party People”, and “BagBak”.
All songs on “Big Fish Theory” are made better by Vince’s rapping style. It remains laid back and rarely becomes aggressive, which pairs interestingly with the darker and in-your-face beats.
“Big Fish Theory” is made even better by its features, which are curiously unlisted. Damon Albarn from Gorillaz helps on “Love Can Be”. Kendrick Lamar has a great verse on the Flume produced “Yeah Right”. “Big Fish”, my favorite track on the album (what a banger), has a great chorus hook from Juicy J.
Despite my very long narrative analysis of “Big Fish Theory”, I really enjoyed this album. Its moody electronic beats help it stand out, and Vince’s strong flow pairs well with each well-produced song. Guest verses do not overshadow Vince, but help make each song better.
“Big Fish Theory” is good, but not great, because it fails to accurately explain its big picture. Vince’s “Big Fish” idea is compelling, and he adds complexity to each element of his life that is holding him back. But these ideas often appear too separate from each other, and it makes the album feel unfocused.
“Big Fish Theory” is certainly not an instant classic, but it is far from a sophomore slump. I recommend it.