Premature Evaluation: Vince Staples Big Fish Theory
“We making future music. It’s Afro-futurism. This is my Afro-futurism. There’s no other kind.” That was Vince Staples, talking to LA Weekly, describing his new album Big Fish Theory. And when Staples was on The Daily Show last week, Trevor Noah asked Staples about that quote. Here’s how he responded: “I like saying stuff about black people to white people.” Noah, after busting up laughing: “So that doesn’t mean anything?” Staples, almost incredulous: “Of course not.” And yet that talk about “Afro-futurism” does mean something. It means Vince Staples, of all people, just made an album of dance music.
That LA Weekly story makes a big point of explaining that Staples doesn’t think in terms of genre. But in working closely with Westside Ty and Zak Sekoff, the two producers behind much of Big Fish Theory, he did land on a genre, or at least some version of one. To hear them tell it, Staples started off asking a rhetorical question: “What does a robot sound like?” And here’s Zekoff, a Yale student and SoundCloud dance producer, talking about Staples’ ideas with the sort of clarity that Staples, ever sly, refuses to bring to interviews: “He was talking a lot about techno and Detroit techno and how there’s something to be had in that aesthetic. That there’s a city story to be told, it’s not just about festivals out in the desert somewhere.”
Historically, dance music, like virtually every other kind of music to come out of America in the past century, is black music. Detroit techno — the product of Michigan kids hearing Kraftwerk on late-night radio and, inspired, doing strange and new things with drum machines — went on to kick off a global dance-music revolution, one that now dominates the white-kid festival scene. And through that music, there’s also a persistent strain of Afro-futurism. Afro-futurism, a musical and artistic aesthetic that has to do with escaping and transcending through sci-fi concepts, flows through decades of black American music, through Sun Ra and Parliament-Funkadelic and Afrika Bambaataa and OutKast, and there’s a ton of it in Detroit techno, in groups like Underground Resistance and Drexciya. It’s a universe of imagined worlds, of utopias and Egyptian spaceships and lost civilizations. And merely by invoking that offhandedly in an interview, Staples, whether he’s being serious or not, plugs himself into a whole tradition of longing for something more.
Staples is one of rap’s most evocative writers, but his sharp, defined aesthetic sensibility has always been just as central to his power. Two years ago, Staples released the landmark double album Summertime ’06. On that album, he spoke of young love and bleak hopelessness, and he did it over ominous, minimal beats from producers like Clams Casino, DJ Dahi, and longtime Staples booster No I.D. All three of those producers are absent from Big Fish Theory, which is a very different record. The new album is much shorter and much less lyric-focused, and it’s built entirely around clean, angular club-music sounds. But through its sharp, cold edges and its hostile flatness and its use of negative space, Big Fish Theory feels like, in its own way, a logical continuation of what Staples was doing on Summertime ’06.
If you wanted to, you could see something cynical and predetermined about Staples’ embrace of dance-music sonics. After all, it’s not like Staples gets a ton of rap-radio play. He exists almost outside of rap conversations, instead finding his audience across the global summer-festival landscape, playing stages in the same tents where DJs dominate. (Danny Brown, a rapper who has nothing in common with Staples beyond his writerly eye and his adventurous sensibility, may have made a similar calculation on recent records.) But it’s not like Staples is rapping over Major Lazer or David Guetta instrumentals. (He’s also not rapping over tracks from, say, a Detroit originator like Kevin Saunderson, as cool as that might be.) Instead, Staples’ collaborators are producers who, like him, are in their early 20s, and who know how to translate Detroit techno’s sonar pings and bass-bloops and neck-snap hand-claps into something that makes sense in the frantic, ADD-addled present day.
You have to admire the audacity at work on Big Fish Theory. If the leaked credits that came out earlier this week are accurate, the album is absolutely crammed with big names. But those big names, for the most part, have absolutely no impact on the music that Staples is making. “Love Can Be” reduces Damon Albarn to a disembodied, buried-in-the-mix voice. A$AP Rocky mutters a hook and does nothing else on “Samo.” I have literally no idea what Bon Iver does on “Crabs In A Bucket”; I can’t hear him anywhere. I think “Homage” gets the “featuring Rick Ross” credit just because Staples recycles the hook from Ross’ “Hold Me Back.” There are only two exceptions. On “Rain Come Down,” Ty Dolla $ign does the same croon-through-the-machine things that he already did so beautifully on “Fade,” Kanye West’s own Detroit techno tribute. And on “Yeah Right,” we bear witness to the strange spectacle of Kendrick Lamar tearing a SOPHIE beat to shreds. Kendrick doesn’t get any hall-of-fame quotes on the song, but we do hear what he can do with a deeply unconventional rap beat, and he hits it with something like five different flows in the space of a single verse.
As for Staples’ own rapping, it’s as calm and icy and mean as ever. In a way, the album’s production sounds even more out-there because of how how unflappable Staples is on top of it. Big Fish Theory isn’t a lyrics-first album the way Summertime ’06 is, and sometimes the beats are so fast and propulsive that it’s hard to keep track of what Staples is saying. Still, it’s clear that Staples’ version of Afro-futurism doesn’t involve rapping about pyramids on Mars. Instead, when he talks about societal ills, he does it with pointed directness: “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.'” And when he calls for resistance, he’s just as sharp and economical: “Ain’t no gentrifying, we finna buy the whole town / Tell the one percent to suck a dick because we on now.” But Staples spends more time talking about relationships than about the fucked-up state of the world. And those are the moments of the album where he shows the most emotion. “All my life, pretty women done told me lies,” he murmurs over and over on “Alyssa Interlude,” and a sample of the Temptations’ “I Wish It Would Rain” answers him back.
The real thrill in the album, though, is in hearing these right-now interpretations of different dance-music sounds, in learning what Staples and his collaborators can do with them. “Crabs In A Bucket” is foggy, thoughtful UK garage with a pronounced Burial influence. “Alyssa Interlude” is an emotive glitch-haze with a lot of James Blake in its DNA. “Love Can Be” is textured techno, and Staples collaborator Kilo Kish, who shows up to whisper-sing through a few hooks, turns it into a flickering echo of diva-house. The two tracks with production from SOPHIE serve as proof, if we needed it, that SOPHIE is not a rap producer but that he is a producer whose sounds can, in the hands of smart and resourceful rappers, become something fascinating. Every new sound embraces some vision of the future, whether from decades ago or from right now.
And when was the last time you heard a rapper consumed with ideas about the future? (Not ideas about Future. Every rapper has those. Ideas about the future.) And while Big Fish Theory sounds more like a singular curio than like the beginning of a movement, it is one hell of a singular curio. It may be Afro-futurism, and it may not. When he’s doing it like this, he can call it what he wants.
Big Fish Theory is out on 6/23 on Def Jam.
UPDATE: Here’s the full album stream.