“I HEARD THE STREETS WANT A CLASSIC FUCK A CLASSIC THIS THE FUTURE,” Vince Staples tweeted days before releasing his highly anticipated sophomore album, Big Fish Theory. It’s not a surprising sentiment from the 23-year-old Long Beach, California, native, who’s frequently expressed his distaste for the stodgy puritanism that pervades much of the conversation around hip-hop. Staples doesn’t care if he makes your year-end list, he’s not interested in your all-time top five, and he certainly doesn’t want to sit around rhapsodizing on the deeper meaning behind his own art.
Yet by rejecting antiquated notions of what hip-hop needs to be, Staples liberated himself to make one of the most captivating and diverse rap albums of the year.
That’s not to say he doesn’t care for virtuosity in the conventional sense. Staples proved his technical prowess and street cred with 2015’s Summertime ’06, a grimly confessional double album that chronicled his gang-banging exploits and police scuffles in unflinching detail. The rapper’s own world has grown exponentially since, and Big Fish Theory likewise explodes with scalding, arena-ready EDM bangers that fall somewhere between Graduation-era Kanye and Old-era Danny Brown.
Upon first listen, Staples also sounds happier with his life now than he did two years ago. The rapper who once lamented that “my pain is never over, pills and potions fix me up” now boasts that he’s “up late night ballin’, countin’ up hundreds by the thousand” on “Big Fish.” But money can’t buy him happiness, nor can it distract him from the fact that other young black men are being wrongfully incarcerated and abused on a regular basis.
Eventually, Staples’ deadpan braggadocio gives way to a familiar sense of nihilism and paranoia. “How am I supposed to have a good time when death and destruction is all I see?” he asks on the hypnotically percussive “Party People.” Nobody seems to have an answer—Staples included—so he might as well lose himself in the good vibrations of the night and clean up his mess in the morning.
He doesn’t have time for such existential queries anyway, as they distract from his actual music, a masterful combination of fizzy electronica and furious, blink-and-you’ll-miss bars. On the rumbling, Flume-produced “Yeah Right,” Staples questions the legitimacy of his fellow rappers’ status symbols—the cars, the bling, the endorsements, the supermodel girlfriends—and spars with Compton messiah Kendrick Lamar, refusing to be out-rapped on his own track.
It’s a testament to Staples’ own dizzying finesse and artistic clarity that he can hang with Lamar, who is seven years his senior. Many comparisons have been drawn between the two rappers, and rightfully so: Behind Lamar’s DAMN., Big Fish Theory is the most thrilling and adventurous rap album of 2017. Both artists are acutely aware of the systems of power constantly trying to undermine and oppress them, and both understand that simply existing as young, proud, successful black men in this country is an act of resistance.
But where Lamar once positioned himself as a modern-day messiah who carried the entire rap community on his shoulders, Staples contents himself with savage one-liners and schoolyard taunts that suggest he’s not so far removed from his Ramona Park stomping grounds. “Ain’t no gentrifying us, we finna buy the whole town,” he raps on the incendiary “Bagbak.” “Tell the one percent to suck a dick, because we on now.”
This big fish just graduated to a much bigger pond.