Music and the industry that powers it are things that change insanely fast. Names we had never even heard of a couple of months ago might be dominating the charts now without us noticing their rise to fame at any point. Things can sometimes get hard to follow with the amount of new music that comes out every single week. Because of this, it isn’t hard to feel overwhelmed, prompting many people to react by limiting themselves to one genre or to what they hear on the radio. It has become easier to find exactly what we want to hear, and therefore also to ignore what we think we don’t want. Ironically enough, the more music gets released, the less likely we are to step outside of our comfort zone — why would we want to when it’s so comfortable and new music is constantly being added to it ? Thankfully, some of us still take on the necessary job of looking further than the already acclaimed or the easily defined. This leads to a peculiar situation, where those that are paying attention to the small artists now more or less decide what we’ll all be listening to in a few years.
The rap scene is no exception to this growth in production. On the contrary, it is certainly one of the most vibrant and active music subcultures nowadays, which makes its future stars sometimes even easier to miss. We pay much attention to the established kings and queens and to those who know how to play with their public image to reach quick fame, while, in the meantime, the underdogs are building their own paths. Of course, it is not impossible to follow these promising talents as they rise to prominence — but we must watch them closely, for we might miss them if we only blink. And so, exactly like that, while we weren’t paying attention, Vince Staples has discreetly but firmly established himself as one of the most consistent rappers of the contemporary scene.
We certainly can’t reproach any lack of productivity on Staples’ part. Since 2011, he has released at least one album or mixtape every year, each time slightly outdoing himself (last year’s excellent Big Fish Theory certainly being the highest point of his career as of now). He also frequently collaborated with other artists, such as Kali Uchis, Earl Sweatshirt, Kilo Kish, Jhené Aiko and Gorillaz. As if that wasn’t enough, he also recently contributed to the soundtrack of the acclaimed animated feature Spider-Man: Into The Spiderverse, and made contributions to Creed and Black Panther as well. The young Californian releases so much music we might wonder if he’s addicted to it — but thanfully, his fans are as addicted to him as he is to them.
Staples shows no signs of slowing down either — in fact, he just seems to get faster and faster, riding a wave that grows stronger with every passing year. He recently announced to his fans to expect an incredible amount of new music from him this year, teasing as many as four new albums to be released in 2019. Before we get drowned in all of this new content, it only seems appropriate to take a step back and look at the rapper’s latest output, perhaps so we can be better prepared for what’s to come.
The rapper’s latest album FM! was released this past November. Clocking in at twenty-two minutes, it is a relatively short release that sees him explore in depth the musical and thematic characteristics he has been toying with since the beginning of his career. His previous releases all had merits in their own right, whether it was through the risqué avant-garde style of Big Fish Theory or the heartfelt treatment of quite difficult themes in Summertime ’06. In FM!, Staples captures the best out of these previous releases, allowing himself to be both playful and raw. It is an achievement that very clearly couldn’t have existed without the years of writing music that came beforehand, and therefore a perfect gift to longtime fans. At the same time, it encapsulates the rapper’s world so perfectly in such a short time that it will easily double as an ideal place to start for newcomers.
Outside of his music, Staples is often known for his outspoken personality. He uses his voice on social media and shows to pull sometimes hilarious stunts (his attempt to set a GoFundMe that would allow his haters to pay him to “shut the fuck up forever” was quite noteworthy in that respect), other times to share a refreshingly honest and unfiltered perspective on current events. The raw sincerity he has been characterized by has also always been present in his music, and his lyrics certainly always involved some level of playfulness; however the plain fun, the laugh out loud funny was often reserved for his persona outside of music. Some complained about this: why can’t we just have fun ? Why couldn’t Staples be as funny in his music, why did he always have to bring up violence and all these things no one wants to think about ? Why couldn’t there just be the beats so we can jump during his shows without having to think about any deeper implications ? FM! is Staples’ answer to those that asked these questions, and more often than not, his answer is a very clear “Fuck you”.
In this way, the album is the most authentically Staples response we could hope for. You wanted him to be funny in his music too ? Alright, he will — but don’t complain when he’ll remind you that while you’re dancing and getting a laugh out of his music, people are still getting killed. The album’s tone mirrors the California it depicts, where it “always feels like summer” but where the guns also always aren’t that far away from shooting and taking yet another life. This approach is certainly a bold choice: his most “fun” release (the album’s main promotional single is actually named “FUN!”, an acronym for “Fuck Up Nothing” making his stance more than clear) to date is also his darkest.
If the listener is tempted to distance themselves from the album’s themes and simply dance along to the rhythm, it won’t be long until Staples calls them out. The album often steps into surprisingly confrontational territory: you’ve asked for this, seems to tell us Staples in every song, now it’s time to actually listen. The album is constructed around small interventions from Big Boy, the host of Big Boy’s Neighbourhood, a popular Los Angeles radio show. FM! is constructed like a broadcast, occasionally incorporating skits and exclusive previews from future relases from fellow rappers Earl Sweatshirt and Tyga.
This format makes the message even more powerful. There’s something incredibly easy about turning on the radio to forget about everything that’s going horribly wrong in the world — and Staples has grown tired of it. You’re listening to the radio, yes; the music is upbeat and easy to dance along to, yes; but pay attention for once. Even if you’re one of the “white fans at the Coachella” he references in the opener “Feels like Summer”, even if you feel like none of this actually concerns you, Staples will tell you exactly why it does. You don’t know about the gang violence, the kids he’s seen dying, how life was like in his neighbourhood, but he does, and he’s tired of people not paying attention. And so is born a strange little album with a peculiar mission: making people care while they’re dancing.
Through the outward confrontation with his audience, Staples’ own internal battles are often put in the background. His tone is not as personal as on other albums, the rapper accepting to make himself a vessel for the sake of FM!’s overall tone. The task of bringing emotion is often consequently given to the numerous guests of the album. “We just lost somebody else this weekend / Think that I am jumping off the deep end / Nothing out of something, now it’s leaving / Tryna find my peace of mind, it’s fleeting” sings Kehlani on the closing track of the album.
Staples does not give himself the chance to dive into such heartfelt territory. In FM!, he is characterized by toughness, a toughness that he had to embrace out of necessity. It is easy to forget that we are listening to a twenty-five year old young man when we hear him recount the gang violence he has been a part of and all the people he’s seen dying. By reducing him to his undeniable comedic talent, we also denied the experiences that made him into who he is. FM! is the response some desperately needed to hear, and while the message may be lost on some who are truly too busy dancing, Staples could have hardly made it any clearer.
Despite how extensively the young rapper dives into his own brain and experiences throughout his music, it is hard to tell what’s coming next by listening to FM! The album may feel slightly repetitive from time to time (although this could be a conscious choice to mirror the repetitiveness of music that is broadcast on radio stations), but its underlying themes are enough to make us pay attention. It is a busy and scary time in the world, which gives rappers like Staples plenty of things to talk about. His increased productivity therefore comes as no surprise. It’s hard to know exactly what to expect from all the new material the rapper has announced, but since he has now guaranteed himself an attentive audience, he will most certainly be able to take us to other unexpected places — and this time around, we’ll certainly be there to listen.