While it’s a touch reductive to lump them both together, parallels between the careers of Vince Staples and fellow Californian Kendrick Lamar are uncanny and numerous. Both have found success despite swimming against the musical flow, performing dense, politically charged lyrics in an era more enamoured with the simplistic sing-song decadence of Migos, Rae Sremmurd and Lil Yachty. Both have cultivated on-record personas that are part bolshy street kid, part world-weary philosopher. Both are astonishingly technically gifted, to the degree that they’re actively evolving the art of MCing. And both have an affinity for rapping over oddball, square-peg beats that sound like nothing else out there.
Staples has long operated in Lamar’s shadow. He more than does alright for himself – critical acclaim, decent sales, Gorillaz guest spots – but it’s King Kendrick who’s bagged the Obama endorsement, the album-of-the-year accolades and the reverent fanbase. On Staples’ second album, however, he comes close to drawing level with his West Coast rival. Because ‘Big Fish Theory’ is one of the most ambitious, dazzling hip-hop albums of 2017 so far – neck-and-neck with Kendrick’s ‘DAMN.’.
Right from fiery opener ‘Crabs In A Bucket’, Staples’ propulsive, hypnotic flow has never sounded stronger. His lyrics, meanwhile, are emotionally calibrated for 2017: antsy, alienated and occasionally overcome with nihilistic despair at the state of the world. And his bleak lyrical brilliance is perfectly matched by ‘Big Fish Theory’’s experimental production. He’s always had a taste for harsh electronic funk, and he embraces that creative urge more eagerly than ever. There’s slo-mo techno, dystopian G-funk, field recordings, growling industrialism; abstract, icy grooves more indebted to Berlin than Atlanta.
“We making future music,” announced Staples in the run-up to ‘Big Fish Theory’’s release. “This is my Afro-futurism.” Whatever this is, it’s jaw-dropping. Over to you, Kendrick.