Vince Staples: Fm! Album Review
On Vince Staples’ debut mixtape, in a calm tone that suggested he had seen some shit, he rapped, “You want some positivity go listen to some Common.” Eight years later, he continues to live up to those words. In Vince’s Long Beach, California-centered world, it’s summer year-round, and while the season usually brings bright skies and beach weather, it’s also the time of the year when people are wilding—when the temperature increases, so does violent crime. The West Coast never gets a chance to catch its breath, a feeling brought by the change in season. In Cali, the block is always hot.
Vince’s dark humor and borderline-troll personality have turned him into one of the genre’s most captivating characters, but his provocative side has been explored more often in interviews and social media than in his music. On his brisk, third studio album FM! he finally brings that personality to wax. The album begins with L.A. radio mainstay Big Boy describing the relaxing endlessness of a West Coast summer. But Vince is not with that and immediately debunks the fairytale: “Summertime in the LB wild/We gonna party ’til the sun or the guns come out.”
With all the success he’s accrued simply being himself, Vince appears to realize he doesn’t need to shape his sound to appease out-of-touch label executives for his music to weave through the West Coast air waves; with the 11-track FM!— of which he only raps on eight songs—he creates the shadow broadcast of his dreams. Vince has made an album that’s true to himself, one that represents his image of Long Beach, his love for the music of the West Coast, and that unleashes the complete personality of Vince Staples.
Vince’s tone is present on FM! in a variety of ways. Often he’s not even the one relaying it. Case in point: The project’s two interludes, presented as radio premiere snippets, don’t feature him at all. The radio has always been a home for trolling, consider, for example, Funk Flex’s frustrating and legendary “Otis” premiere on Hot 97 that teased the Kanye and JAY-Z collab for over 20 minutes. Vince uses the radio in a similar fashion, dropping in an Earl Sweatshirt knocker only to cut it off after 20 seconds. He follows that up later with the tease of a Tyga strip club anthem. The moments give Vince the chance to spotlight two artists he genuinely appreciates—but they’re also maddening. Because even though I’m aware I’m being trolled, I want more. Vince knows that and he’s rubbing it in my face.
When it comes to the album’s proper songs, Vince is often influenced by classic G-Funk records, and Vince uses the genre to signal his California authority. He even has to deal with the old school conflict of trying to capture the nonstop party sound of summer while lyrically recognizing its darkness. The production on the album, mostly from the chameleonic Kenny Beats—who can go from ATL melodic ballads to punk headbangers to now West Coast turn-up tracks—moves at a rapid pace. Kenny’s ability to pinpoint regional sounds will make some go in the streets and dance like the New Boyz, until Vince’s sorrowful lines pop in to remind everyone that shit isn’t sweet: “First months still feel like summer/Cold weather won’t stop no gun, or wrong hat, wrong day, I killed my brother.” A song like “Fun” feels like the sort of radio single that YG would perform at award shows until you realize what Vince is saying. Lyrics like “My black is beautiful, but I’ll still shoot at you” will always drag it back to the gloom of Long Beach.
When an artist decides they’re going to make an album for nobody but themselves, my first thought usually is, “Man, this is going to suck.” But Vince is at ease here, intertwining his personality into his somber celebration of Long Beach like never before. He’s rapping his ass off, and hooks are mostly an afterthought. He dips in and out of inventive flows, like on “Outside,” where he hits the pocket to make lines like, “Park gangster back then/At my Uncle Phil’s house with a mac 10” as memorable as any chorus. And on “No Bleedin” he enlists Bay Area favorite Kamaiyah’s buttery flow for a lively track about avoiding death that will melt into brains like an everyday pop song. On Vince’s station, the melancholy bars and the bounce come at the same time.