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Rap is probably as crowded today as it has ever been. The barrier of entry that existed in the past exists no more thanks to technology. Rappers no longer need access to record labels, studios and DJs to gain an audience. As a result, there are tons of artists vying for fans' attention every day.
Just look at the list of people who released new albums on November 2nd and the preceding days: Swizz Beatz, Freddie Gibbs and Curren$y, Takeoff, Styles P, Metro Boomin, Big Pooh, Action Bronson, Moneybagg Yo, and Vince Staples. This should be a festival lineup, not a release day lineup.
These avalanches of new music happen often, which makes it hard to hold people's attention for a moment, let alone an entire album. Yet artists can convince fans to pay attention to them by making their presence felt each day, not just when they are on a press run. A prime example is Vince Staples, whose voice is prevalent even when there isn't a beat behind it. Sometimes he is insightful in interviews, as he openly grapples with the lifestyle bred by being a rapper. Other times he shows the wit of a comedian, as he tweets things like, "If you out there enjoying FM! don't forget to commit a crime!!!"
The Compton-born, Long Beach-bred emcee has a unique sense of humor and perspective, which has helped him build a dedicated following. He is never in need of a hit song or big-name feature. Yet on his new album FM!, Staples surprises fans with more than just an unannounced release. The LP offers songs made for radio play—a change that would reek of desperation from some artists. But Staples hints that the shift in his sound is more thoughtful than that. Ultimately, FM! proves that Staples' voice rises above the noise, even when his music resembles the noise.
FM! is united by more than a radio-friendly sound. Staples includes skits throughout the LP that feature the prominent LA radio show known as Big Boy's Neighborhood. This choice indicates that the album's sound is part of a concept rather than a cheap ploy.
What that concept is can be debated, but it is clear that it results in energetic music from Staples. The album starts with the Ty Dolla $ign-assisted "Feels Like Summer" and "Outside!" Both songs bang as much as hits from other LA natives, such as YG and Tyga. But although the songs are cheerful on the surface, they retain the menacing air that exists in much of Staples' earlier work. Straightforward lines like, "We gon' party 'til the sun or the guns come out" show listeners that where Staples is from, an innocent time can easily turn ominous.
This reality reflects the gang culture that Staples grew surrounded by, his depictions of which do not sound as aggressive as accounts from legends like Ice Cube and Kurupt. Yet Staples still captures the atmosphere by including the street values by which he and others live. "No Bleedin" is the clearest example, as he says, "Click, clack, bang, bitch, I stay dangerous / You can't be friendly when you bangin'" (Yup. That sounds about right to me). These lines are straight to the point, much like the confrontations described by Staples.
The immediacy in his message here is true for the album as a whole. On previous projects, Staples told stories of his past that possessed more nuance. But this time around, he mainly reflects the energy that drives the culture from which he has risen. This approach limits the message explicitly conveyed by his lyrics, but the choice makes sense given the production Staples rhymes over. When I hear a beat as brooding as the one on "Relay," I don't expect to hear a lot of introspection.
In terms of technique, Staples devotes much of his effort to his delivery rather than his lyricism. He impressively bends his flow to the pace of each beat, which keeps the songs from sounding too repetitive. And the amount of times he adjusts his cadence can rival the work of Kendrick Lamar.
The album's sound and its radio skits mesh well, but the message the pairing is supposed to drive home isn’t spelled out for listeners. FM! could be a satirical album, since Staples has never operated on the industry’s terms, but does so this time by turning tales of Black and Brown death into bangers. This concept would challenge the voyeurism among rap fans, but its subtlety could make the concept fly over people’s heads.
FM! could also be a fantasy of what would happen if Staples took over the airwaves in his hometown. To have Staples, Jay Rock and Earl Sweatshirt featured on the same playlist as Tyga, Kehlani and E-40 would probably represent California more authentically than a corporate-driven set. Or FM! could simply be music that Staples likes and wants to share with the world.
In any case, the LP continues to expand Staples' sound. His music has grown more accessible with each new release, and FM! is the largest leap forward in that process. With this new album, Staples' music may finally get as much attention as his personality.
Notable Tracks: “Feels Like Summer” | “Relay” | “Run the Bands”