Long before he was elected to office, writers were prescribing art as responses to Trump or Trumpism. When asked in a New York Times interview how the political climate influenced his debut album, Harry Styles argued that it confronted “Everything you (the interviewer) were talking about – just the state of the world at the moment... It’s very much me looking at that.” In advance of Gorillaz’s Humanz, Damon Albarn underlined the album’s political relevance by discussing how he edited out every specific reference to Trump. These narratives are best captured in now-too-familiar headlines: “This is the (blank) we need to survive (blank).”
Even when art and criticism is explicitly about Trump, Brexit, or any other earthshaking political upset, it’s entering a claustrophobically saturated market – but Vince Staples’ Big Fish Theory succeeds as a unique and authentic response to our situation. “BagBak”, released as the album’s first single, attempts to observe the political context from a partisan perspective. It demands revolution, but has no delusions of how unlikely that is, relegating Obama’s administration to a trivial footnote against a continuation of committed structural racism. And it’s not just institutional prejudice Vince Staples limits himself to on Big Fish Theory – his scepticism is all-inclusive. He despairs over competitive individualism on “Crabs In A Bucket” and the disconnect between love’s idealism and reality on “Love Can Be…”, while the gothic dystopia of “Rain Come Down” draws the record to a pessimistic conclusion.
The tense marriage between despondency and restlessness also applies to the production. “Yeah Right” clinks and plunges agitatedly, while “745” sees Staples gnaw at a weary, resigned beat by Jimmy Edgar that typifies the producer’s quintessentially Detroit fusion of techno and funk. And then you have the bass, which is so cosmically deep it occasionally steals the spotlight from Staples himself. It’s more than instrumentation – it’s instrumental to understanding the album’s message (as Staples tweeted, “PLEASE EXPERIENCE BIG FISH THEORY IN THE APPROPRIATE SETTING BECAUSE I DO INDEED SERVE THE BASS”). His indulgence in bass feels like a symptom of his anguish, the disorienting beats accentuating the nihilism of Staples’ state of the nation address, where nervous maximalism is medicinal.
You could argue that the Californian rapper’s indignation and empty exhibitionism is not constructive – that it doesn’t help to create a plan for repair, and that being sensible, level-headed, and conscientious is the best path forward instead. But we don’t need to be repeatedly told to listen to music telling us to be good people. In times of chaos, we need alternative ideas that offer relief if not a manifesto, otherwise we’ll be worn down by the well-meaning but nigh-impossible advice of being an unfailingly good person, always. To my mind, the indulgence on display in Big Fish Theory isn’t contradictory but complementary – the adoption of hedonism as a shock therapy that’s appropriate for the circumstances.
“(Big Fish Theory) demands revolution, but has no delusions of how unlikely that is”
For being a teetotal enigma (he doesn’t smoke weed, drink, or really party), Vince Staples vividly paints debauchery as a conduit of expression, and more fittingly as remedy. Against a backdrop of trippy hi-hats and drunk techno signatures, “BagBak” sees him spit: “Prison system broken, racial war commotion / Until the president get ashy, Vincent won’t be votin’ / We need Tamikas and Shaniquas in that Oval Office.” This elucidating political commentary wheezes under sex, drugs, and the sultriest, sweatiest beats, turning the protest anthem into the party banger. These songs circulate Staples’ barely controlled rage and frustration, and the decadence of the bass, the profligacy of the drum machines, and the debased mania of Staples’ invocations are simultaneously insolent and fatalistic. It’s hedonism as a purge of internalised sorrow, outrage, and alienation. Aspiring to constant kindness in the face of turmoil is exhausting, so a corresponding release is critical to our wellbeing, if not quite our survival.
Beyond its political radicalness, Big Fish Theory identifies how euphoric and therapeutic hedonistic immediacy can be, with the bass’s throb as pulsating and vital as your own heartbeat. It’s the bliss of escapism. However, Staples’ nihilism is such that he doubts even the most luxurious escape can inhibit the pain of reality. “Party People” confesses “Move your body if you came here to party / If not then pardon me / How I’m supposed to have a good time / When death and destruction’s all I see?” Earlier on the record, “Alyssa Interlude” – sampling an Amy Winehouse interview – warns affectingly of overindulgence, signposting the danger inherent in numbing sorrow through such excess. Taking Big Fish Theory as a whole, Staples seems to validate hedonism as a response while advising caution about overdoing it.
I’ve connected with art in the past year which proposes thoughtfulness and compassion, but Big Fish Theory taps into something latent. It taps into that ancient, repressed urge to combat extremity with extremity, feral despair with feral bliss. Succumbing to self-indulgence is by no means a complete answer, but it’s a natural reaction that can liberate people – even if only fleetingly. But often, that moment is all we need to recover. When we’re feeling at our most icily isolated, sometimes we need to burn to feel alive.
Follow Kieran Devlin on Twitter here @nonotthatdevlin