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Vince Staples - FM! (Album Review)

Friday, 09 November 2018 Written by Jonathan Rimmer

There's something jarring about hearing 'FM!', California rapper Vince Staples’ latest record, for the first time. That's not to say it's gratingly abstract or experimental – if anything, it's the opposite as we're treated to a series of trap and hyphy-inspired cuts over the course of 22 minutes. It's a bitesize project from an artist who made his name with a double album, 'Summertime 06', and last year's futuristic 'Big Fish Theory'.

But nothing Staples ever throws out is ever truly disposable, even when he appears to suggest so himself. Quoted in its press release, Staples described the record as “no concepts, no elaborate schemes, just music”. However, even that's not entirely true given the album's structure. In essence, 'FM!' is sequenced in the form of a radio playlist, with staged interludes and recurring skits from local DJ Big Boy.

The tracks themselves are brief, bassy and hook-driven, designed to – as Dead End Hip Hop critic would put it – “bump in the whip”. And make no mistake about it: these are some of Staples' catchiest and bounciest verses ever.

His “who 'bout that life?” gangland call-out on Outside is uncomfortably infectious, and he invokes his Long Beach hero Snoop Dogg on Run the Bands by skipping playfully over sinister bell-like synths.

If his delivery seems incongruous with the surrounding production, it's worth considering that nothing Staples does is ever fully straightforward. For example, it at first it appears a practical mistake to release a project that depicts “summertime in the LB” at the start of November. But Big Boy rationalises this in the album's intro: “Whatever day, vibe, month it is, it just feels like summer...it always feels like summer in the neighbourhood, man.”

Staples has a strong grasp of how to convey time and place in his music, whether that’s through his lyrics or sample choices. He paints an impressionistic picture of Long Beach, a perpetually hot resort-like coastal neighbourhood nevertheless beset with dangers. He describes having his “head on a swivel” on No Bleedin', assuring listeners he's always on high alert with rapid-fire rhyme patterns (“Feds on me, hit the gate, double back and hit the block, feds on me, skippin’ state, I'ma buy another spot”).

And for all 'FM!' is short and lacking the verse quality we've come to expect from Staples, it's not really designed to stay the distance. He ultimately saves the best track for last – having depicted his exterior environment for most of the project, Tweakin' snaps back to his inner psyche as his delivery becomes increasingly tortured and rigid. He reflects on his last verse that “poor people gon' use this shit, might as well go and get used to it” and he's “tryna get rich, get everybody fed, but everybody dead”.

It's a reminder that even without “elaborate schemes”, his gut instinct isn't to romanticise the world he's grown up in but accurately represent a community that's had the spirit beat out of it. Staples attempts to show on 'FM!' he has the ability to switch it up and write radio-friendly rap hits, but you can't help but see his gradual reversion to social realist as less by fault than it is design.

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