Vince Staples has always been a man of deceptive versatility. Though his flows and vocal performances sometimes come across as familiar, there’s no denying that he’s been able to ride a huge range of diverse instrumentals with ease. This is clearer than ever on his latest album, which was announced on Twitter just under 12 hours before it was released.
FM! sees a departure from the danceable house grooves and buzzing electronic beats that were littered throughout Big Fish Theory, and a return to the stripped-back, menacing atmosphere of Summertime ’06, with some extra trap influences this time around. It’s definitely a more commercial sound than was the case on his previous two releases, but Vince finds a way to make it interesting and, at the very least, wildly entertaining.
Though it only clocks in at 22 minutes, FM! is no less conceptual than Staples’ previous works. The album is presented as if it were a radio show – specifically, the renowned LA show ‘Big Boy’s Neighborhood’ – complete with voice-over introductions and snippets of ‘new music’ from Tyga and Earl Sweatshirt.
This concept makes for an obvious and fairly stark contrast between the stereotypical radio show banter that’s laced throughout the album and the gritty realism in Vince’s lyrics.
This juxtaposition is noticeable right from the opener, ‘Feels Like Summer’, with the eponymous host Big Boy’s claim that “It always feels like summer in the neighborhood” seemingly setting a laidback, stereotypical West Coast summer scene during his introduction to the track. But the phrase takes on an entirely new meaning as Vince provides a darkly genuine portrayal of the ever-present gang violence in his hometown (“First month still feel like summer / Cold weather won’t stop no gunner”). An icy synth lead and some eerily distant backing chords accentuate the sense of paranoia on the track.
The central theme established on the first track carries across most of the album, as Vince switches his focus back to his old lifestyle, delivering a substantially less-than-glamorised depiction of gang life. “Do you really wanna know about some gangsta shit?” Vince asks on ‘Relay’, borrowing a line from Outkast to challenge the potentially romanticised perception of such a culture that his audience holds. A similar sentiment can be found earlier in the album on ‘Outside!’, in which he asks “Left side, who ‘bout that life? / Right side, who ‘bout that life? / Night-time, who ‘bout to die?” It’s through Vince’s bluntness that the gravity of the situations he raps about is revealed, and his narratives are all the more compelling for it.
Vince’s frank lyricism has also made his approach to political and social issues all the more interesting, having delivered some of the most biting bars in recent memory. This is especially the case on FM!, as numerous references to the Civil Rights Movement can be found throughout the album. On ‘Don’t Get Chipped’, he alludes to Sam Cooke’s ‘A Change is Gonna Come’ – a 1964 soul ballad turned protest anthem – before claiming “I’m not going if my gang won’t come”. He continues such juxtaposing imagery on ‘FUN!’: “My black is beautiful but I’ll still shoot at you”. Here, he pairs one of the most common vilifications of African-American people with a mantra of 60’s Civil Rights activists that was created to combat such stereotypes. Vince is undoubtedly at his most deft when he harnesses his inherent pessimism to provide unique insight into ongoing issues.
The heavy lyrics are matched with even heavier beats. ‘Outside!’ and ‘Don’t Get Chipped’ feature some of the most hard-hitting bass and punchiest percussion on the album, with an almost atonal melodic line (apparently a Nyan Cat sample) in the former and an airy flute on the latter complimenting these features perfectly. It should also be noted that Vince’s vocal performances on these two tracks are some of the most animated he’s ever offered. The use of his upper register helps him meet the energy of the instrumentals better than he has in the past, and can also be seen as a callback to his earlier work, perhaps signifying that these songs are from the perspective of a younger version of the rapper.
The consistent hardcore hip-hop tone of the album can both be seen as a blessing and somewhat of a curse – though it gives the album a sense of unity, the production can feel one-note at times. However, there are enough interesting instrumental choices (the glitchy phone samples on ‘No Bleedin’, the ominous synth brass that’s doubled by a piano on ‘Relay’) to rectify this, and the album’s short runtime saves it from becoming too tedious.
With a feature on all but two of the tracks, it’s no surprise that the album’s guest performances vary in quality. Ty Dolla $ign and Jay Rock’s respective hooks aren’t anything special, but catchy enough and certainly memorable. On the other hand, the hook on ‘Run the Bands’, which sounds very much like a Juicy J feature (though it’s unconfirmed), borders on monotonous – especially since the track has one of the spacier and less exciting instrumentals. The clear standout is Kamaiyah, whose odd vocal tone and melody and unflinching lyricism make for an incredibly gratifying verse.
The mortality-related anxiety that drives much of the album’s lyrical content is at its most obvious on the closing track, ‘Tweakin’’, in which Vince reflects on how death pervades both his past and present lifestyles. The rapper’s characteristic sense of nihilism is especially present on the track, as he reduces himself to “a face and a name” in his second verse, before later commenting “Had me up in church at a young age / Should’ve had the n***a at the gun range / Woulda been a lot more useful”. Kehlani’s hook significantly adds to the song’s melancholic tone, with the recent passing of Mac Miller – a close friend of both Kehlani and Vince – giving lines like “We just lost somebody else this weekend” even more emotional weight.
Despite its short runtime and straightforward sound, FM! is by no means surface level. Coming out just over a year after Big Fish Theory, it’s a showcase of Vince’s flexibility in terms of the beats he raps over and the lyrical topics and themes he covers. The album is as catchy as it is sharply written, and a fine addition to a consistently enjoyable discography.