“I wasn’t an outsider, (but) I never wanted to do what they all wanted to do” – the rapper reveals the thinking behind his norm-defying sound
Vince Staples thinks we should all have more secrets. He tells me this in the back of a car driving over the Williamsburg Bridge, riding from Brooklyn to Manhattan, just a few weeks before the release of his latest album, Big Fish Theory. I ask him about the name of the record. “That’s a secret,” says Staples. “But what I can promise you is that it has nothing to do with actual living, breathing fish. It has nothing to do with the ‘big fish, small pond’, as people like to say. And it has nothing to do with the term ‘there are more fish in the sea’.” There is only one detail he’ll share, which is that his mother is one hundred per cent the only person who might ever guess what it’s about.
“You can’t tell all your tricks,” he goes on. “When you watch Top Chef they say, ‘We have a blend of spices,’ they don’t tell you it’s ‘a little bit of oregano, a little bit of pepper and some other thing’… You can’t tell ’em. Because then you’re not the man with the barbecue rub. Know what I mean? I watch a lot of food channel.”
Staples would prefer that people just listen to his music. And that’s a fine preference: Big Fish Theory, released in June via Def Jam, is his best work yet, a consummate follow-up to his brilliant 2015 debut full-length, Summertime ’06. Over 12 tracks, Staples twists his distinctive flow over genre-defying electronics and dance music experiments, glitchy ambience and fractured future-pop. Big Fish Theory draws from different corners of electronic music with a rare sense of abandon, shaping these sounds with a sophisticated approach to rhythm that makes for one of the most creatively explosive albums of the year – powerful for how it is sharp, incisive, artful and raw.
Staples is one of hip hop’s most singular talents, but a career in music was never his ambition. “I never wanted to make music,” he said last year, in the Dazed-produced film Vince Staples Tells It Like It Is. “I wasn’t thinking about it. I knew I wanted to go to college, and play basketball or something… My dream was being fucking regular.” Staples grew up in the LA suburb of Long Beach, and stories from his upbringing are laced through his visceral writing. To learn about his past, just listen to his songs: “When I was in seventh grade my grandfather told me, ‘Don’t get caught lovin’ the streets ’cos they never gonna love you back,’” Staples sang near the end of Summertime ’06, on “Like It Is”. It’s a plainspoken story-song, a style Staples does masterfully.
“Another story of a young black man / tryna make it up out that jam, God damn,” he sings on “Big Fish”, from his new record. And then, later, “Swimming upstream while I’m tryna keep my bread / from the sharks make me wanna put the hammer to my head / At the park politickin’ with the kids / tryna get em on a straight path…” In the song’s video, Staples wears a white jumpsuit, sitting in a white boat, as he’s encircled by sharks (it quickly becomes apparent he’s sinking). Big Fish Theory’s most explicit protest song surfaces with “BagBak”: “Prison system broken, racial war commotion / until the president get ashy, Vincent won’t be voting / We need Tamikas and Shaniquas in that Oval Office / Obama ain’t enough for me, we only getting started.”
“I’ll have an idea for a song, and I write it when it pops up in my head. It just happens; I’ve never been able to fully understand what (my process) is” – Vince Staples
Staples’ rise as a songwriter began after he started hanging with the Odd Future crew as a teenager. The young rapper dropped his debut mixtape at the end of 2011, and continued releasing mixtapes every year for three more years. During his teenage years, he also met Zack Sekoff, the 21-year-old LA producer who is credited on five Big Fish Theory cuts. Sekoff’s multifaceted approach to production is partly inspired by time he spent studying in London, learning from the styles and tempos of UK garage, grime and dance music.
“I just basically worked with my friends,” says Staples of his approach to making the record. “I had a lot more control over what I wanted to make. Everyone who was in the room was somebody I put trust in creating something with me… At this present moment, everyone is kind of all-in, if that makes sense.
When I show up to the Bushwick photo studio for today’s shoot, Staples is snapping a photo of a goldfish named Pamela, brought over this morning by the photographer’s producer from Petland Discounts. I ask if he’s going to be taking the fish home. “I don’t believe in animal ownership,” he deadpans. The album is out in a few weeks and Staples is feeling positive. “I’m always positive,” he says. “I made it already. That’s the part I care about. After I make it, everybody else can do what they may.”
Staples learned from an early age to stop caring what other people think. “I wasn’t at all like an outsider. I had friends,” he says of growing up in Long Beach. “(But) I wasn’t necessarily conforming. I never wanted to do what they all wanted to do. It wasn’t really ever an issue. It’s a pretty diverse place. I think people consider people from Long Beach to be pretty weird… Everyone allowed me to be myself. And I think that says a lot about the whole culture of where I come from. If I were to talk to a kid, I would say, ‘Be yourself regardless.’”
These days, Staples stays supportive of the kids in his hometown. Last year, he announced that he would assist a YMCA programme supporting youth in North Long Beach. “Everyone should give back something to someone,” says Staples. “No matter what it is, how little or how big. We’re in this world together. No one is here alone. It’s important to show people there is opportunity for people to care about them. The world would be a much better place if we were more courteous and caring toward one another.”
“I look forward. Plan the next five to ten minutes of the day. Plan for tomorrow. And, you know, stop there. Because tomorrow never really comes” – Vince Staples
Big Fish Theory features vocals from the likes of Kendrick, A$AP Rocky, Juicy J, Kilo Kish and Damon Albarn of Blur and Gorillaz, plus production from SOPHIE, Ray Brady, Jimmy Edgar, GTA, Justin Vernon, Flume and others. There are bass-heavy bangers, but also moments of stark introspection: “Loved that song when we were kids / now it makes me want you here / sometimes people disappear / think that was my biggest fear,” Staples sings on “Alyssa Interlude”, a song that greets you with a signature Staples surprise: a clip of Amy Winehouse giving an interview and a sample from a Temptations song.
Staples describes his writing process as highly instinctual: “I’ll have an idea for a song, and I write it when it pops up in my head. It’s pretty simple. I try not to make it hard. It just happens; I’ve never been able to fully understand what it is. I just know it’s part of my everyday of being. I make music. It’s kind of an inescapable hobby at this point.”
Sitting in the photo studio, I take a closer look at Pamela, the fish, and stare through the wide-mouthed jar she’s been transferred into. Through the jar I catch a glimpse of Staples resting on a couch, lying on his back and staring up at his phone. Tonight is his record release party in New York, but he doesn’t mention it. “Big Fish Theory listening party,” he posts on Instagram later that evening. “I don’t party.” (“How I’m supposed to have a good time / when death and destruction is all I see?” he sings on album cut “Party People”.) Staples turned 24 in July, making him a cancer sun sign, which seems apt. Cancers are known to have strong connections to home, and the water, concerned with the emotional but also highly intuitive. They’re also good at keeping secrets.
“There’s no big revelation at the end of a project or the beginning of a project,” says Staples, thoughtfully. “We wake up one day, we have these ideas, and then we try our best to pursue them… I don’t really get in my own head. I just look forward. Plan the next five to ten minutes of the day. Plan for tomorrow. And, you know, stop there. Because tomorrow never really comes. We just spend time trying to go step by step, day to day.”
Vince Staples performs at the Forum in Kentish Town, London on August 30
Styling assistants Noa Zarfati, Savage Devon, Elliot Long, Jacob Harris, production We Folk, on-set production Jasmine Kim