Everyone knows the tragic story of Amy Winehouse: the tumultuous relationship with Blake Fielder-Civil, her serious mental health problems and the drugs and drink which eventually killed her. And everyone knows of the frenzied way the media portrayed her life as a drug-addled hedonist, playing music—jazz—commonly associated with drugs, namely heroin.
Winehouse has featured in Vince Staples’ life before: Prima Donna, apparently, was inspired by Amy, the scrutinising documentary about her life, and he has spoken out publicly in the past about how she was treated by the media and society in general. And she features on Staples’ latest effort, Big Fish Theory, albeit in the form of an interview she conducted in 2006 in which she talks about her ‘self-destructive’ lifestyle, love, and how she writes her music.
Staples has always had a penchant for rapping about celebrity culture, and Big Fish Theory both glorifies and sharply scrutinises the lifestyle and portrayal of rap celebrities. In ‘745’, Staples analyses himself: ‘All my life man I want fast cars, NASCARs/All my life I want runway stars, Kate Moss’. But this song isn’t really concerned with bragging about riches and fast cars. Biblical references towards the end of the track point more towards a theme of self-discovery and trying not to go down the wrong path; indeed, Staples seems more concerned with escaping his life, rather than boasting about it.
Staples has gone a totally different way with the production on this record, too. With collaborations from Justin Vernon, James Blake, Flume and SOPHIE, the album sounds more like something you’d hear in your local nightclub than an album to put on and explore. But this is all part of the illusion: Staples celebrates hip hop through some club-friendly production while picking apart the culture at the same time lyrically. It’s a clever juxtaposition that makes for danceable songs with genuine depth.
Some moments on this album seem more exploratory; others are downright acerbic. ‘Is your house big? Is your girl fine?’ Staples asks on ‘Yeah Right’, before finishing the verse ‘How the workload? Is your buzz right?/Do the trap jump? Is the plug right?/Got your head right? Yeah, right’. Staples goes on to talk about impotent materialism, positioned side-by-side with mental illness and self harm—a potent image.
As has been a common theme in hip hop since its inception, Staples makes subtle references to the fate of black men in America, linking back to his own failing mental health: ‘How I’m supposed to have a good time/When death and destruction’s all I see?’ ‘Party People’ takes a harsh dig at himself, and others, it seems, for partying while ‘black cats’ have ‘handcuffed wrists and their skin turned blue’. It’s a sobering image, but Staples gives no solutions; rather, the song concerns itself with self-observation—even self-hatred—all masked under the guise of having a ‘good time’. ‘BagBak’ builds on this theme, referencing the broken prison system, California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation and Obama, albeit by saying he wasn’t sufficient. Staples manages something other rappers (Joey Bada$$, for instance) couldn’t quite hit on in their more recent efforts: actual anger with the system, eloquently presented.
‘Rain Come Down’ concludes the album in analogously gloomy style. Staples contradicts himself, one moment saying he ‘never need a girl to love’ him, and just a few lines later asking whether others ‘dream on how it feel to be in love’. This idea of being in love—or rather, not being in love—is evidently something playing on Staples’ mind; these lines, forming the beginning of the end of the album, link back to the interview with Amy Winehouse, in which she talks of being in love, ‘a real drug’, and it falling apart. Has Staples recently lost a lover, or, as seems more likely, has he never been in love—never known that wonderful feeling of invincibility?
These are obviously important questions, but they aren’t really what Big Fish Theory is about. This album is about both celebrating and tearing down what it means to be a celebrity, what it means to have a perception of oneself projected by the media, and the horrible places this can lead. Staples takes traditional club bangers and twists them until they are warped, sarcastic reflections of themselves; his humour, in places, is dark and torpid, and the images he paints of being a black man in America, in his neighbourhood, are much more convincingly crafted than anything a modern rapper has managed to do in recent times. Amy Winehouse, Dusty Springfield, Billie Holiday, Britney Spears and all the other horror-story celebrities lived tragic lives, and this album, with its anxious club beats and dry wit, tells all their stories and, living up to its name, hypothesises about celebrity culture. Vince concludes with a platitude often forgotten in our celebrity obsessed society: ‘Don’t drown in the brown, just drown in the sound’; or, more prosaically, it was always just about the music.