After the weird, jarring "Big Fish Theory," Vince Staples goes for something easier on "FM!" Or does he?
The defining characteristic of Vince Staples' music is a stark contrast between the upbeat and the grimly realistic. He'll name a song "Smile," spend most of it detailing his hopelessness, and cap it all off with a refrain of, "Sometimes I feel like giving up." He'll name a song "Party People," and over a bright, active instrumental that matches the title, ask us, "How am I supposed to have a good time when death and destruction's all I see?" He outdid his past achievements of cognitive dissonance with last year's paranoid dance party, Big Fish Theory, but FM! pulls off an even more jarring juxtaposition.
The 22-minute-long release (officially deemed an album despite being the same length as Staples' Prima Donna EP and shorter than his Hell Can Wait EP) is styled like a radio show, specifically Big Boy's Neighborhood, a staple on L.A.'s 92.3 hip-hop station. In keeping with the format, there are skits, interludes, guests, and most importantly, music that would fit in effortlessly next to Tyga, Problem, Kid Ink, and other pop-minded L.A. rappers. If you've heard Vince talk about his music taste, this shouldn't be surprising— in the past, he's gone to great lengths to defend Tyga and Ray J from criticism. But if you expected for one second that Vince giving into his love for jerkin-style beats would mean pop hooks and low-calorie punchline rap, you couldn't be more wrong.
From the opening seconds of "Feel Like Summer," the gap between the cheery set dressing and the brutal content is clear. Describing the perpetually summery feeling of L.A. weather, the radio host says, "You get a chance to lay back, you get a chance to laugh, you get a chance to chill," and that all goes out the window almost immediately. Vince's second bar: "We gon' party 'til the sun or the guns come out." Standard-issue Vince Staples subject matter follow, which is to say: heavy shit. Within the first two songs, we get tales of a gunned-down kid ("All he got was a plot and a bottle from the Winco"), the bleakest possible outlook on life ("If they killed me, then I'd be great"), and a role call of gun models.
This all isn't to say that Staples doesn't have a sense of humor— in fact, his tendency to fake out his audiences is his music's most noticeable connection to the caustic wit he's known for on social media. He's always very conscious of the percentage of his fans that are white (personal aside: I saw him at a predominantly white festival this summer, and he kept asking the crowd why they weren't singing along to the "Homage" hook) and this holds true on FM! when he calls out Coachella crowds and turns standard "left side, right side" onstage banter into a comment on gang territories. Just because he's not trafficking in the usual pop-rap subject matter doesn't mean that FM! is any less engaging or listenable. Once again, the inner conflict within Staples' music aligns him with film and fiction in which morality is a spectrum, and not a cut-and-dry easy answer. Usually, that's the best kind of art.
But let's cut away for one second to talk about the main variable that FM! holds in Vince's discography. It's far more in-line with the rest of modern Cali rap than anything else Vince has ever done, and that's mostly due to a white producer from the East Coast. Kenny Beats' 2018 had already been a total tour de force proving his insane versatility, but this is an entirely new level of achievement. On previous triumphs like Key!'s 777 and Rico Nasty's Nasty, he made stark transitions between bust-your-face-open trap and melodic mood pieces seem effortless, but on FM! he undergoes a full transformation like an actor putting on 75 pounds and taking regional dialect speech lessons for a role. The way this dude mimics drum patterns, tones, and melodies from Cali pop rap is incredible. He's truly a student of hip-hop. And not only that, he still puts his own personal spin on things by way of manipulating synth lines throughout songs— listen to how the melody on "Don't Get Chipped" starts off bitcrushed and forward and then gets plunged underwater as soon as Staples start rapping. This guy is a problem, and his only competition for Producer of the Year is Tay Keith.
Overall, FM!'s abbreviated runtime and charming-but-gimmicky concept make it a little less substantial of a release than Big Fish Theory or Summertime '06, but it's still another decisive check in the W column for an artist with no L's to date. Staples is, as he calls himself on "Tweakin," "A young black man with a backbone," and this album's Lite FM stylings only help to prove that this is true in all settings.