Toward the end of FM!, his quick and jarring new album, there’s a moment where Vince Staples brutally sums up the cold absurdity of rap almost-fame: “Tryna get rich, get everybody fed / But everybody dead.” Staples has earned a reputation as a sharp and cerebral trickster — funnier than a lot of comedians, more entertaining when talking about basketball than most professional basketball commentators. He’s great at half-trolling publicity stunts, like the moment, earlier this year, when he promised to quit rap and keep his opinions to himself if anti-fans raised enough money on his Gofundme campaign. And yet Staples is not a joke. And on his records, he generally puts that persona behind him and gives, a cold, dark look at what it’s like where he’s from. To understand him, you have to understand that dichotomy.
Ever since graduating from the LA mixtape scene to the Def Jam offices, Staples has been pushing himself, remaking his sound and style from album to album — first with the stripped-back intensity of Summertime ’06, then with the Afro-futuristic house-music provocations of Big Fish Theory. If you’re not paying much attention, FM! looks like another pivot, an embrace of the sunny textures of LA rap and circa-now sounds.
Where Staples has always been reluctant to invite guests onto his own songs, FM! enlists a long list of Staples’ peers, both rappers (Kamaiyah, Jay Rock, E-4o) and R&B singers (Ty Dolla $ign, Kehlani). The production comes from Kenny Beats, who has been lately making jagged and kinetic tracks for people like Rico Nasty and Key!, and from Hagler, who worked with Drake on “Trophies” and with Staples himself on his 2014 monster “Blue Suede.” And the whole thing is structured as a radio show, with repeated appearances from the cast of LA’s huge Big Boy’s Neighborhood show. From a distance, then, it almost looks like Staples has decided to turn his brain off and to make a quick-and-dirty project of fun club records. Except Vince Staples doesn’t work that way.
For one thing, there’s plenty of sly provocation involved in FM! The guest-rappers don’t get showcase moments; we don’t hear much more of them than we heard from Bon Iver or Damon Albarn on Big Fish Theory. Like those guys, they’re there for texture, or for quick little recognition-shocks. E-40, one of the four or five most important rappers in West Coast history, is mostly reduced to hypeman on “FUN!” Staples isn’t really throwing a party. He’s piling on the cameos in quick succession, like one of those Steven Soderbergh art films that’s full of famous people who barely get any camera time.
For another, it’s just as easy to read the album’s structure as a comment on Staples’ own lack of centrality within the rap world. When someone calls in to the radio show, trying to think of celebrities whose names start with the letter V, Staples doesn’t get mentioned. And his more-famous friends Earl Sweatshirt and Tyga show up, they’re only there for brief, trollish cameos. They’re also the only rappers who the radio hosts name directly. And there’s something beautiful about the idea that the album puts Earl and Tyga, two rappers on opposite ends of the mass/critical matrix, on equal footing. (Also, Tyga’s 35-second appearance? Pretty good!)
Musically, FM! is brisk and efficient. The beats have less to do with the ’90s G-funk that some of us still associate with that Coast and more to do with the new-century revolutions of hyphy and jerk music — all those clipped drums and nagging synth figures working together to convey a barely-contained energy. It’s only 22 minutes long, and it feels even shorter than that, what with the skits and radio-station invasions. (Those radio interruptions are going to be hell on FM!‘s replay value, but given that Staples is planning to release four new albums next year, the whole idea of replay value seems to be almost beside the point.)
As a rapper, Staples remains great when it comes to pure, elemental shit-talk: “Car so big it’s haunted / Car so big it’s Tongan.” But he’s also attuned to the tragedies of living as a disenfranchised American, painting images of total desperation and desolation in a few quick strokes: “If he fuck around and take the stand on her dude, he gon’ have to raise his baby from the visiting room.” He knows how to convey the absurdity of his own new life: “Look how far we done came / Now I’m a face a name / Just got a call ‘bout my tweets, told me to watch what I’m saying.” And he knows about the contrast between that life and the one that shaped him, how thin the membrane between the two is: “Don’t be looking funny when we come up in the store / My black is beautiful but I’ll still shoot at you, dog.”
In Staples’ video for “FUN!,” we see Staples in a few different street situations: A burglary, a street fight, a roadside vigil. And as the video ends, we see that a suburban white kid has been watching all of it on Google Earth while trying to hide it from his parents. In his music, Staples never dwells on that disconnect, but it’s always there: “White fans at the Coachella / Never been touched, niggas know better.” It’s one layer among many. On all sorts of straight-up rap levels — the technical, the physical — Vince Staples is making great rap music, music that will sound great when playing out of an open car window or a festival sound system. But if you’re listening for layers, they are there. If you’re listening for layers, in fact, you might have to get used to the idea that you aren’t even hearing all of them. Vince Staples is out here telling hard truths, and he’s telling them in ways that move. Bring on the next four albums.
FM! is out now on Def Jam. Stream it below.
Other noteworthy albums out this week:
• Meg Baird & Mary Lattimore’s gorgeous psychedelic folk team-up Ghost Forests.
• J Mascis’ ragged, amber, mostly-acoustic solo jam Elastic Days.
• Against Me! side project Laura Jane Grace & The Devouring Mothers’ strident, purposeful debut Bought To Rot.
• CupcakKe’s as-yet-unheard Eden.
• Lil Peep’s posthumous tooth-gnasher Come Over When You’re Sober, Pt. 2.
• Charles Bradley’s posthumous soul howler Black Velvet.
• Mark Knopfler’s slow, thoughtful Down The Road Wherever.
• Tee Grizzley’s purposeful mixtape Still My Moment.
• Stephen Steinbrink’s heavy, meditative Utopia Teased.
• Sunshine Frisbee Laserbeam’s psychedelic indie-popper Blackout Cowboy.
• Muse’s synth-rock progger Simulation Theory.
• Nick Zammuto’s score for the movie We The Animals.
• The 9th Wonder-assembled compilation Jamla Is The Squad II.
• The soundtrack to The Grinch.
• Little Dragon’s Lover Chanting EP.
• Westerman’s Ark EP.
• THEY.’s Fireside EP.