Radio Signal Heard Loud and Clear

Steven Erickson
Nov 11, 2018 · 5 min read

Vince Staples-FM! (Def Jam)

Vince Staples’ FM! suggests easy, uncomplicated pleasures are lies. If you don’t pay attention to the words, the album’s music is upbeat, danceable and simple to enjoy without much thought. Producer Kenny Beats drew from the Bay Area’s hyphy sub-genre of hip-hop. Staples’ last album, BIG FISH THEORY, was heavily influenced by house music and IDM; when he said that it should have been nominated for a Grammy as Best Dance/Electronic Album, he had a very good point. But his lyrics on FM! evoke sunny days and parties in his home town of Long Beach. They also rarely go far without mentioning violence or the fact that he was a Crip. “Feels Like Summer” doesn’t mean simple fun in the sunshine. The song doesn’t go two lines before bringing up the possibility of guns coming out.

Other rappers would take the menace in his lyrics — or his emotionless delivery — and turn it into something more easily consumable, a la 21 Savage. Staples is determined to represent the complexity of his life, but he gets the paradox that by making a living as a successful rapper, he’s commodifying it. The endings of his videos for “Señorita” (one of the most cutting and disturbing hip-hop visuals ever made) and “FUN!” point to the voyeurism of white, middle-class hip-hop fans. Many of the YouTube comments on “FUN!” call it racist simply for acknowledging this.

In other ways, FM! frustrates listeners’ expectations. Staples got the hosts of the real-life L.A. radio show Big Boy’s Neighborhood to appear on it, performing its interludes, skit and making incidental comments. A DJ announces “new Earl Sweatshirt,” but while Sweatshirt hasn’t released an album in three years and rumors have flown that he’s retired from rapping, the interlude “New earlsweatshirt” only lasts 22 seconds. Tyga is far more popular, recently scoring the top 10 hit “Taste,” but the “Brand New Tyga” interlude Staples gives him is similarly fragmentary. The visual for “FUN!” stops when E-40’s verse begins, before the full song ends.

We’re in a period when the definition of album has changed, and hip-hop has recently veered between the extremes of the 7-song releases on G.O.O.D. Music and the bloated Spotify-bait of Drake’s SCORPION and Migos’ CULTURE II, where a few good songs are buried in tons of filler that will be streamed by listeners prospecting for gems. With the interludes, skits and fake radio station format, FM! evokes Prince Paul’s production for De La Soul. It’s as satisfying a listen as Pusha T’s 22-minute DAYTONA or Tierra Whack’s 15-minute WHACK WORLD, but it feels more like a mixtape than Staples’ double album debut SUMMER TIME 06.

Staples has reportedly made four million dollars, but much of that has likely come from his Sprite endorsements and GQ videos, not album or streaming royalties. He’s never had a mainstream hit single, although “Norf Norf” went gold after three years. Without appealing to teenagers to the same extent as Brockhampton and Tyler, the Creator, he’s found the same sort of cult audience. The slow success of “Norf Norf” was likely aided by the YouTube video made by a Christian woman who heard the song on the radio with her 11-year-old daughter, was shocked by its lyrics and filmed herself spending 11 minutes crying while reading them out. The song is hardly above criticism, but the woman revealed the danger of living in a bubble: she had no clue that the chorus “I ain’t never ran from nothing but the police” reflects young African-American men’s justified fear of violence from cops, not just macho posturing. She’s also not self-aware enough to realize that her video would serve as free PR for Staples and his song.

Staples responded to her video with a gracious tweet, and possibly in response, “Big Fish,” the first single from his second album BIG FISH THEORY, avoided profanity and slurs. But it didn’t skip violent imagery. However, it placed references to guns and shooting in his past, while its second verse reflected on his current success.. Although he doesn’t drink or take drugs, BIG FISH THEORY follows “Big Fish” with an interlude sampling an Amy Winehouse interview about the self-destructive tendencies that would eventually cost her life. “Feels Like Summer” brings up his ambivalence about making money by appealing to “white fans at the Coachella, hey/never been touched” while rapping about experiences of poverty and Crip membership.

Photo: Kyle Grillot/AFP/Getty Images

The dance music influences from BIG FISH THEORY went beyond EDM/trap production to sound genuinely futuristic. The percussion on “Yeah Right” suggests stomping on metal cans. “Norf Norf” features a woozy, vibrato-laden synthesizer. FM! is more pop-oriented, but song titles like “Feels Like Summer” and “FUN!” are barbed. (The latter is an acronym for “fuck up nothing.”) In some ways, the radio concept of FM! is an ironic recognition that his music is unlikely to get 23 straight minutes of airplay. “Relay” flips it with paranoia about police scanners in its chorus. Staples would probably be more popular if he either settled on gangsta rap (like FM!’S “Outside!”) or made the party music FM! superficially promises, with empty lyrics about sex and money. His sense of humor’s apparent in his music, but it’s much clearer from his interviews and Twitter feed.

Staples wants to be a star — he’s complained in his lyrics that he should be winning VMAs and Grammies and about Def Jam’s inability to promote him better — but the idea that getting more popular isn’t likely to have a positive effect on his life was a subject of his PRIMADONNA ep and BIG FISH THEORY. If the second verse of “Big Fish” is tentatively hopeful, its video ends with him drowning after rapping the song while paddling a sinking rowboat. The video for “Norf Norf,” which starts with him in the back seat of a police car and ends with him in a jail cell, also undercuts its lyrics’ bravado. And if he already feels that his music attracts too many people who get off on a secondhand glimpse of African-American poverty, imagine what would happen with an influx of new fans if “FUN!” became a top 10 single.

It now looks like the punk rock ethos of staying away from the mainstream was partially a product of race and class privilege and a time when people actually spent money buying albums. If you have other options for making money, it’s easy to reject the chance to make Sprite commercials or scoff at the desire for Grammies. “BagBak” envisioned victims of gentrification getting even by “buying the whole town.” Like Staples’ previous albums, FM! wants to click with a large audience, but it’s extremely self-aware of the ironies and contradictions of that connection.