On his road to becoming one of the most important MCs to watch of the last few years, Vince Staples has asserted himself as a blunt, provocative storyteller. His visceral debut album, 2015's Summertime '06, laid the groundwork as he told the world about life in Long Beach, California, for better or worse. On his just-released sophomore album Big Fish Theory, Staples explores an artistic vision that goes beyond raps, embracing experimental electronic production, pop hooks and guest appearances from the likes of Damon Albarn and Kendrick Lamar.
Big Fish Theory is a new direction, but the aquatic theme in the rapper's work remains. Staples' debut LP had an image of waves as the cover, he named his first headlining trek the Life Aquatic Tour, and its visuals made the stage look like a fish bowl.
"It's a home thing," he says. "It's a part of who I am and the connection you have to living next to the water."
Staples aims to show the reality for many who may appear to live in paradise. While water and beaches in popular music are most frequently painted as emblems of escape and renewal, Staples takes the water as a reflection of life's paradoxes, specifically that of being poor and living in a desirable part of the world. He calls it "poverty in paradise" and does not see his feelings being exclusive to his childhood in Southern California.
"If you look at the Dominican Republic and Cuba, those are beautiful places filled with people living with such hardships," he explains. "It's the same thought process for me: You're in paradise, where everyone wants to be, and life's still not as good or as comfortable as you want it to be."
The reality of living in an aspirational setting or leading a glamorous life is pervasive in Staples' most recent work. His short film and EP Prima Donna, released last summer, reflected on the pitfalls and darkness of fame. In the past, he has cited Amy, Asif Kapadia's 2015 documentary about the life, addiction and death of Amy Winehouse, as a major influence on Prima Donna. Winehouse's voice is heard clearly in the Big Fish Theory track "Alyssa Interlude," where a sample from an interview in support of her debut album Frank is utilized alongside a Temptations song.
"You see how bad people treat musicians," he explains. "They treat them like they're not even alive or are products. I wanted to show my interpretation of that."
Beyond her story, Staples is a fan of Winehouse's music, calling her "one of the strongest writers I've heard. You can hear and feel every word. ... That's the point of music, to make people feel something."
Staples, in his own right, has mastered the ability to elicit feeling from his music, thanks to his strong abilities as a storyteller. But as honest as he is in his lyrics, he won't reveal the meaning behind the title Big Fish Theory.
"Every interpretation is right," he says, noting his excitement to hear all the interpretations people may have. He makes it clear that he has no immediate plans to make the definition of the title known, but that maybe one day "when it's beneficial," he'll tell the story.
"It has nothing to do with a more pronounced or known utilization of the term," he clarifies. "It's not 'big fish in a small pond' or, 'There are other fish in the sea.' It's a personal [thing] that happened, and the album is reflecting on that."
Even though Big Fish Theory is out and his 24th birthday is on the horizon, Staples plans to keep building off his momentum and continue working. While he'll take his time to create whatever comes next, he seems perplexed at the idea of taking time off.
"Why would I?" he says.