Classifying rap records by where you’re meant to hear them is for the feds. Before the advent and rise in popularity of streaming services, terms like radio record, club record and street record were thrown around to bring order to a naturally chaotic process. These were often meaningless. Hits can be manufactured and predicted to an extent, but the best are serendipitous and random.
Back in 2005, as the President of Def Jam, Jay-Z hilariously told an A&R to “Manage your heat. Get your Joe Torre on, nigga,” after a Young Jeezy song leaked to radio. Hov made sure to make the archaic distinction that the new track is a club record, not a radio record. As if in 2005, people weren’t playing the same Jeezy records in the club, on the radio and in whatever “the streets” means. Vince Staples came of age during this time — he named an entire album Summertime ‘06, after all. Now he’s one of Def Jam’s most talented rappers, even if he isn’t the label’s most commercially successful one.
FM! is an album steeped in contradiction, but molded after a commercial ideal.
The project is indebted to an era when radio was still king, paradoxically made by an artist that lives in a time where the number of national spins no longer (solely) dictates the success of major label rappers. It’s a summer record released in the middle of fall. It exists in a utopian and far-fetched world where radio programmers rightfully play new Earl Sweatshirt next to Tyga.
FM! is also the first project where Vince embraces the more populist sounds of hip-hop’s past and present. It’s fitting that the first song on the album, “Feels Like Summer,” is padded with the voices of radio personality Big Boy and Ty Dolla $ign, both far more familiar to the airwaves than Staples. The song hints at the idea of what a hit should sound like without conforming to the more clichéd realities of the music that actually get spins. Bay Area legend E-40 lends his distinct voice to the hyphy-influenced “FUN!,” yelling his signature “Tell me when to go” during Staples’s verse. Tyga, the best comeback story of 2018, has an interlude that mirrors his recent return to the charts.
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The sonic architect of FM! is rap’s dark horse producer of the year, Kenny Beats. He provides a bright, but menacing sound for Vince, producing 9 out of 11 tracks. Staples has always been an economic storyteller, which Kenny expertly exploits with kinetic, fast-paced and intricate beats.
Vince Staples, the character, has always carried Vince Staples, the musician. Caustic, biting and witty, it’s a persona that’s built for the internet age. He’s admitted as much. “Interviews. I’m more famous for interviews than either one. And then the lady,” Staples explained when asked if he’s more known for his Sprite advertisements or his rapping. Sadly, he’s not wrong. Vince only has one gold plaque for “Norf Norf,” according to the RIAA and his highest charting album on the Billboard 200 is 2017’s Big Fish Theory at number 16. Those figures aren’t surprising, considering the Long Beach rapper’s music has transitioned from darkly insular to wildly experimental electronic, while ignoring easy classification.
FM! might not change the preconceived notions of Vince’s music. On “Don’t Get Chipped,” he raps, “Stop pretending, you know you feel it / Record deal, but I did it independent.” The Def Jam rapper might not be the label’s golden boy (that’s Logic) or it’s familial juggernaut (hopefully, post-MAGA Kanye), but he is among their most compelling act. His albums seem formed on islands of his making, far from hip-hop’s center. On FM! he finally relents after months of fans attacking the (excellent, though outré) electronic beats at the center of Big Fish Theory.
On FM!, Vince made a love letter to the radio. With his middle finger up, he proved he can sustain his version of glossy, hard-hitting, California rap over an entire project. Let’s hope it makes it to the airwaves.