Do you really wanna know about some gangster shit? You don’t, and Vince Staples is here to tell you why. The Long Beach rapper writes stark, unflinching verses about the cold reality of life in gang country, where death is the only thing that’s promised, and life can end abruptly for infractions as seemingly trivial as being caught on the wrong street wearing the wrong color. Vince is navigating one of the most peculiar major-label careers of the decade; he is using Def Jam not as a lure to attract bigger names to his projects but as a prestige brand anchoring a series of wild but always impressive experiments. Summertime ’ 06, his first full length with the legendary rap imprint, managed to be both claustrophobic and startlingly serene. Every project since has wandered further off the trail. Staples is the only rapper daring enough to want to find out what Kendrick Lamar can do over Sophie and Flume production and one of the few who could match him for sheer bars and mortifying realism.
When you know what Vince’s music sounds like, his media presence is a hoot. He’s the single funniest rapper ever to grace Twitter. (Hits: “The national anthem don’t even slap.” “Niggas telling me I wouldn’t exist without 90s hip hop as if I don’t have a mother or father.”) His snarky habit of offering haters an ice-cold Sprite actually led to a real deal making soft-drink commercials. His love of 2000s pop-rap and R&B sensations like Ray J and Bow Wow appears to run at cross purposes with the seriousness of his own art. Some fans often wish they could hear a little of the lightness of Vince’s internet humor in his music, but as a writer, he seems to have bigger concerns. This week’s 22-minute surprise release FM! is the closest thing we may get to the Vince record those fans have been clamoring for since the jarringly minimalist Summertime ’06 and and the maximalist electronics of Big Fish Theory, which is to say that FM! is still frightening and fatalistic, but this time the beats seem designed to rock parties, not to maim them.
FM! gets its buoyant low end from producers Hagler and Kenny Beats. Hagler scored half of Vince’s Hell Can Wait EP in 2014, most notably crafting the air-raid anthem “Blue Suede.” Kenny Beats is fresh off the release of this spring’s 777, arguably Atlanta rapper Key!’s finest hour. The two beatmakers push Vince to make his voice sound vibrant in the same way that No ID’s scorched-earth sonics forced Summertime’s ghoulish storytelling, and Sophie’s intricate drum programming pushed the elaborate rhyme patterns of Big Fish. The overarching conceit here is that you’re in a car switching through terrestrial radio stations; everything you hear on FM! is a hit single from an alternate universe. To that end, the Los Angeles rap-radio legend Big Boy drops bumpers and bits between songs, and the West Coast rappers Tyga and Earl Sweatshirt get their own interludes. FM! makes Vince work with brevity and a touch of drive-time radio zaniness, and he uses the exercise to serve some of the catchiest music of his solo career.
Short songs sometimes leave the listener with a restless feeling, the sensation of an engaging thought being cut off midstream. It’s not right or fair that Jimi Hendrix’s “Little Wing” starts trailing off in the middle of verse two. Vince’s songs are short, but they never feel abrupt or unfinished. That’s because his gift is compact, incisive storytelling. He can get as much plot into a line or two as his peers do in whole verses. FM! opener “Feels Like Summer” handles the disconcerting experience of rapping to audiences of suburban teens about street life in a withering couplet: “White fans at the Coachella, hey / Never been touched, niggas know better, hey.” In a single verse, “Relay” illustrates the effects of crime on even the people dedicated to avoiding it: “Baby went to Howard, got a BA / Had her baby shower in her PJs / Got her baby daddy for a GTA / On the GTL tryna beat the case / Crime he kept it silent, least that’s what he say / From direct deposit to the lawyer plate / If he fuck around and take the stand on her dude / He gon’ have to raise his baby from the visiting room.”
Like a horror movie, FM! acknowledges straight away that everybody dies, and then it sets about making its characters’ trip through the pearly gates as much of a riot as possible. “FUN!” is a song about murder packed with side-splitting one-liners like “My black is beautiful but I’ll still shoot at you” and “Christian Dior? I’m Crippin’ Bior.” “Outside!” serves brutal gun talk in a devilishly boyish lilt. Changing up the arrangements doesn’t detract from the seriousness of the message. If anything, maybe the Kenny Beats and Hagler sounds will win over some indecisive stragglers. Like Kendrick Lamar, Vince Staples was sharp on his hip-hop foundations right out of the gate. Refinement is a matter of leaning into the possibilities of his voice. It speaks to how challenging Vince Staples’s music has been in this decade that what might be his most conventional record in years can still sound like an exciting new direction.