Vince Staples’ second studio album Big Fish Theory is out and depending on your expectations, this LP can either sound brilliant or bog-standard but for me it’s somewhere in-between. This is an album that on the first listen can sound very impressive, especially after hearing so much trash masquerading as music lately (Teenage… ahem… Emotions). But upon second and then the third listen, you begin to hear the flaws, there might not be that many but they are present. This is yet another occasion where the mainstream media are guilty of overrating an album, raising your expectations before you get to listen to it. If you’ve read the reviews, especially from NME, you’ll probably be expecting some kind of Purple Rain, but this isn’t a flawless, genre-defining (or defying) album. That being said, during a time where garbage shit seems to be overtaking the good shit, Big Fish Theory is an album that is both listenable and enjoyable.
The album opens with “Crabs In A Bucket” which sports a 90s dance music vibe with the mellow strings sounding like something from Moby’s “Go”. Once the drums begin playing, the song then begins to sound like a late 90s, early 00s Garage joint. This aural aesthetic sets the tone for most, if not all of the album. Big Fish Theory sounds like it was created by someone who wants to break the boundaries of what it means to be “Hip-Hop” but unfortunately they do it by sounding very much like the past. This release for me sounds like Adamski, K-Klass, and Dru Down fucking each other and producing a bastard child. The end result sounds unique because this is the 10s but if you lived through the early 90s like me, there’s something very familiar about the whole thing.
People who are either too young or who aren’t versed in 90s dance music, will say Big Fish Theory is unique or hail it as a game changer (which some critics have already said). For me that’s simply not true. Whilst on the topic of “old-school” music, it’s strange that when critics and the public hear Boom Bap-ish sounds (Joey Bada$$ for instance) they say it’s “too 90s” but when Vince Staples makes a 90s-sounding Dance album or A$AP Rocky or A$AP Ferg makes a 90s-sounding Trap album nobody acknowledges the throwback nature of their stylistic choice. Whether you sound like Black Moon or Black Box or Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, 90s references have been everywhere for almost a decade now. Even outside of the Hip-Hop genre, artists have harked back to the latter part of the twentieth century. From Katy B to Kiesza, a 90s-style has been a staple of Pop music for almost a decade, the problem I have is that critics keep calling certain aspects of 90s-influenced music “innovative” despite the fact that most of these sounds are essentially as old as “Jazzy” Hip-Hop, but I guess that’s for a separate article.
Back to Big Fish Theory, the second song “Big Fish” which contains a beat similar to Raz Fresco‘s “Cortez Nikes” also contains a catchy chorus courtesy of Juicy J; “I was up late night ballin’, countin’ up hundreds by the thousands” which I’ll admit is both corny and clever…
“Alyssa Interlude” which contains some snaps and clicks then follows. The song begins with an interview (with Amy Winehouse?) and Staples then proceeds to sing (kinda). I would have preferred it if he rapped over Zack Sekoff’s unorthodox beat, as it stands this song is too short and possibly unneeded. “Love Can Be…” then follows and I have to say it sounds like something Azealia Banks did a few years ago.
“745” produced by Edgar, features a sparse synth track with an old-school “West Coast” bass noise that sounds like something between a Spice-1 and The Coup joint from back in the day. This is followed by “Ramona Park Is Yankee Stadium” an unneeded skit or interlude which nevertheless flows well from and into the next track.
“Yeah Right” is next and it contains a very catchy chorus. There’s some distorted synth sounds, an R’N’B vocal, and a guest appearance. For me the production by Sophie and Flume sounds very “Grime” and Kendrick Lamar I have to say gives a better verse than Vince Staples.
“Homage” is an electronic, two-step beat, and along with the line “These ho’s won’t hold me back” it sounds like something from the 2 Live Crew (if you ignore the mellow comedown portion).
“Samo” featuring A$AP Rocky, contains some Rusko-esque production that tries to detract from the Trap-ish vibe of the rapping. This is followed by “Party People”, another decent beat but possibly too “Pop” and slightly too 2013 for me (if not 1993, that beat sounds like The New Power Generation slightly updated) but again it’s very catchy.
“BagBak” is the most conventional song on the album, with Vincent’s flow sounding like everything else right now. The low-pitch vocal sounds too noughties and the sentiment of “Obama wasn’t enough” is something already said by Joey Bada$$ in “Land Of The Free”. Similar to A.A.B.A., the line “Tell the president/government to suck a dick” is rebellious but it’s a very safe thing to do these days.
The album ends with “Rain Come Down” which contains some autotuned singing which sounds too much like contemporary Hip-Pop for me. Without the autotune, the singing portion would be great but with this overused effect in place, this final track sounds too commonplace. Once again the chorus sounds like something from the 90s or 00s, think Donae’o meets Culture Beat. This song ever-so-slightly lets the album down. For an album this short you expect a little more “oomph” to close.
Big Fish Theory is just short of 37 minutes, and that’s a very short album. That being said, this album flows well from beginning to end but I have to say it feels more like an EP rather than a LP, albeit a satisfying EP. Most, if not all the songs are pleasant but in my opinion “Alyssa Interlude” could have been removed completely, it doesn’t add anything to the album but I guess that would have made it even shorter.
This album could be criticised for “going Pop” but in the case of this particular release, it’s “going Pop” in a good way. Let’s not forget that many 90s Hip-Hop, R’N’B, Reggae, and Dance albums did the same thing, making a fusion of genres and getting airplay without selling out. If you think back to all the aforementioned groups from the 90s, you will agree that this album owes a lot to that decade. Remember when groups were blending Hip-Hop vocals with Electronic production and they got play both in the clubs and on radio? Well this is pretty much the same thing, this is an R’N’B-Dance-Hip-Hop hybrid, a mixture of genres that comes across as fun rather than deep. This is C+C Music Factory rather than C-Rayz Walz and there’s nothing wrong with that.
That’s not to say that there’s nothing amiss with this release. Production-wise, this album is very listenable but it is Staples who doesn’t raise the bar. Yes, he compliments the songs but lyrically he doesn’t add anything new to either the Hip-Hop or Pop genres. Rapping about “drop-tops” and “hos” isn’t at all original. Sure there’s lyrics like this but for the majority of the LP, Vince stays on the “safe” and “conventional” side of things…
“They don’t ever wanna see a black man eat, nails in the black man, hands and feet. Put ‘em on a cross or you put ‘em on a chain, lines be the same; ‘he don’t look like me’” (a little inaccurate since Jesus was Middle Eastern but a small issue overall).
As an album, Big Fish Theory so obviously tries to be “different” but somewhere between M.I.A. and Azealia Banks I feel like we’ve already had an album like this, the only new thing here is that it’s a young, male, millennial rapper. The best part of the album is producer Sekoff who produces five of the tracks, I just wish Staples created better lyrics to compliment them.
This is an album that is and will continue to be overrated by the mainstream media. Big Fish Theory is very much in the same vein as DAMN., the difference is this album flows very well from beginning to end and it doesn’t feature as many weak songs as Kendrick’s offering. Like I’ve said, where Big Fish Theory lacks is in the lyric department. Lyrically there’s nothing really original but it’s still satisfying, in a way that DAMN. wasn’t. This album sticks to its guns with the 90s dance influence and it doesn’t start dragging in other genres and sub-genres and become muddled. Regardless of the fact that I feel I’ve heard production like this before, the album overall blends together very well and it’s a satisfying listen throughout.
The fact that I’m still playing “65 Hunnid” almost three years later, I think Vince Staples has staying power and his songs don’t wear out very quickly. This is an album that will be revisited by fans years from now. I can see Big Fish Theory being ingrained into 2017 where if you listen to this album ten or twenty years from now it will remind you of this year or this period of time.
Okay, so Big Fish Theory is not ground-breaking or avant-garde like critics are making it out to be, but it’s good nevertheless. I think reading mainstream reviews before listening to an album always raises expectations and that leads to disappointment. Let me make this clear; this isn’t a 10/10 album, either lyrically or musically. This isn’t an original album either, what it is however is an entertaining LP that you can listen to from beginning to end without skipping a single track plus you can listen to it again and again without getting disinterested, and that’s good enough for me.