Vince Staples-FM! Review

Vince Staples may be modern rap music’s most important cynic. Since his breakout in late 2014 with the Hell Can Wait EP, his public image has remained both hilarious and brutally honest throughout Twitter hot takes, food critiques, and one of the most confusing videos to ever go viral. Running parallel to this personality is undeniable artistic innovation, seen in the refined West Coast style on his debut album Summertime ’06 and rampant experimentation on last year’s Big Fish Theory. The latter, which enlisted notable producers such as SOPHIE and Flume and dived into the house and avant garde genres, exemplified Staples’ ability to remain unpredictable. His surprise third studio album, FM!, follows this sense of unpredictability, not growing expectedly more maximal or experimental but reverting to his Los Angeles county heritage with added nuance after some four years of critical and cult success. Considering this, FM! may be the most “Vince Staples” album to date: uncompromising, inventive, and Long Beach from front-to-back.

One of the standout aspects of the album’s trim run-time is the production, handled mainly by L.A. beatmaker Kenny Beats-a former house DJ who’s since produced for the likes of Schoolboy Q, Rico Nasty, and Ab Soul. As a result, the instrumentals emanate bounce and funk stylings in an inherently West Coast fashion while not feeling overly on-the-nose such as with rap contemporaries YG and G Perico. Opener “Feels Like Summer” ushers in the project’s thematic thread with a sporadic changing of radio channels that settles on Big Boy’s Neighborhood, with the self-titled host chiming in throughout the album. Despite the bells and whistles typically found on a popular radio program, the stylistic choice feels organic (and more well executed than Kid Capri’s recent appearance on Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN.), with Big Boy taking intermittent call-ins and previewing snippets from the likes of Earl Sweatshirt and Tyga. “Summer” also sets an immediate contrast between Vince’s mournful delivery (“Summertime in the LB wild/
We gon’ party ’til the sun or the guns come out”) and the flavorful instrumental and Ty Dolla $ign feature, feeling like summer hit material in every way except the main artist.

The following track “Outside” is more upbeat but equally morbid, with Vince playfully discussing gang affiliation and pitting both sides against each other in infamous “squabble up” fashion (“We trying to increase the peace through violence”). “Don’t Get Chipped” features a gritty hook from TDE member Jay Rock amidst a fresh vocal inflection from Vince. His upper register delivery adds to the minimal, Lavender Town-esque beat and mixes the track into a haunting result, before transitioning to the laid-back “Relay” which features Vince referencing pro-black icons such as Black Panther Bunchy Carter and Kwanza-founder Karena, alongside a Sherane-like femme fatale (“Pull up, tryna get a taste and she get you popped”/” He gon’ have to raise his baby from the visitin’ room”).

Lead single “FUN!” features the pluckiest instrumental on the project and one of the most creative music videos of the year (bouncing around Long Beach locales in an outsider’s Google Earth perspective and ending with a sub towards his suburban fanbase). Throughout the brief track, Vince discusses the contrast between his upbringing and newfound rendezvous with luxury (“Christian Dior, I’m Crippin’ Bior”/ “ Miss with the glitz and the glam, Fried catfish at The Ritz in Japan”), with West Coast legend E-40 popping in for adlibs on the track’s closing half. “No Bleedin” is focused on the paranoia and numerous hazards of gang activity (“Head on a swivel, no bleedin’ me”), with Kamaiyah’s featured verse being a perfectly brazen and aggressive addition. The final track “Tweakin’” is easily the most solemn on FM!, dredging over deceased friends and family, the inescapability of one’s formative years, and the cyclical nature of poverty and violence (“Tryna get rich, get everybody fed, But everybody dead”). R&B superstar Kehlani’s hook feels slightly out of place but subdued enough to add to the track’s overall purpose.

FM! may be the hardest album to place in Staples’ discography yet due to both its trim run time (much like Kanye West’s Project Wyoming) and unique intent. Critics may immediately be drawing comparisons between this project and Summertime ’06 or complaining about the lack of Big Fish Theory-level experimentation, but FM! sees Vince lyrically sharp and as cognizant of his career as ever. Its an album free of expectations, assembled for one artist’s love of the West Coast rap scene that founded his career.