Rap and EDM. Those two things go together like peanut butter and spaghetti; I suppose you could convince me that it’s a good combo, but only if you change one or the other until it’s almost unrecognizable. Hip-hop and electronic music have always gone hand in hand, but you almost never see a full-fledged rap over a full-fledged, techno dance beat. Kanye West rapped over industrial beats on “Yeezus,” but the result was more rage-fueled than danceable, and Drake has incorporated two-step and Afro-electro beats on the likes of “Passionfruit” and “One Dance,” but he switches to his sing-song voice while doing it.
Truly club-oriented electronic music, with its rich textures and focus on the dancers’ movements rather than melody, seems incompatible with conscious, street-wise raps from wordsmiths like Kendrick Lamar or Eminem. But the best music overturns assumptions, and with “Big Fish Theory,” quickly-rising figure Vince Staples has compiled an impressive collection of club-rap tunes that hit hard with every musical facet — gorgeous production, massive hooks and brilliant verses.
Staples, a Long Beach native whose keen attention to detail has led to widespread acclaim and mounting attention, has often dipped his toe into EDM waters. His 2014 track “Blue Suede” features a bass drop that could cause earthquakes, and his most well-known single, “Norf Norf,” is layered with electronic drones and a sparing use of trap beats. But Staples’ most striking feature is his astonishing knack for making every syllable count; while he’ll never blow you away with the wildest rhymes, his incisive meditations on fraud and racial identity in rap culture are quick and shockingly efficient.
“Big Fish Theory” takes Staples’ finest verses yet and puts them against a backdrop of rich, sleek electro tunes from the likes of Flume, Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon and SOPHIE. The latter, a deconstructionist producer who collaborates with Charli XCX, brings about perhaps the most quintessential song on this record, “Yeah Right.” Featuring none other than Kendrick Lamar in an incendiary guest verse, SOPHIE and Flume take a massive banger of a beat and then demolish it. An ingenious production technique warbles the bass so it sounds broken from going so hard. As one Genius commenter described it, “This melted my fucking face off holy shit.”
This isn’t rap as we’ve come to know it. It’s certainly not the direction that one would think a politically- and racially-charged lyricist would go. And yet, Staples goes there, and even better, he doesn’t compromise a shred of his integrity, talent or vision. Certain people have criticized him for making such club-infused music, just as they criticize him for his sponsorship deal with Sprite, but they don’t realize that Staples understands every move he makes and how it fits with rap culture in general. But whether he trolls those critics (like his now-classic tweet, “I can’t hear your negativity over the lemons & the limes. #GrabASprite #Sprite”) or simply proves them wrong with a collection as brilliant as “Big Fish Theory,” Staples always feels in total control.