Vince Staples’ “Big Fish Theory” makes a convincing case for his intrepid nature

vince staples

Collecting work from considerable talent, Vince Staples’ fantastic sophomore LP Big Fish Theory is a puzzle of rich, disparate dance influences – and no one’s in a hurry to put the pieces together.

Opener “Crabs In a Bucket” takes a minute to morph into witchy UK garage. The rapper’s eventual appearance scans as fleeting, though he ably fires back at white supremacy: “They don’t ever want to see the black man eat / Nails in the black man’s hands and feet.” In its final lap, the track goes for broke with a come-hither verse from Kilo Kish.

Even the swaggering crunk of “Big Fish” (“Counting up the hundreds by the thousands”) gives way to a rug-pulling soundbite from the late Amy Winehouse. Carried by pitter-patter percussion, “Alyssa Interlude” tastefully ties the beloved singer’s death to a loss that’s closer to home for Staples: “Sometimes, people disappear.

Swerving from ex-svengali No I.D (producer of 2015’s Summer ’06, and this year’s 4:44 by Jay-Z) and his stark experimental hip-hop was a gallant move by Staples.

There’s myriad collaborators and guest artists – fellow Comptonite Kendrick Lamar, Damon Albarn, ASAP Rocky  on board, but with just five credits, it’s Staples’ longtime friend / first-time creative partner Jack Sekoff who sets a clubby template for the 12-track set. Under his guidance, Big Fish Theory oozes like a Class A.

The clacking hip-house arrangements of “Love Can Be…” and “Party People” leave ample room for Staples’ smartass flow. He piledrives the political elite with quips like “Propaganda / Press pan the camera”, and on “BagBak”, incites a social revolt the youth could really get behind: “Tell the president to suck a dick / because ‘we own ya!’

Marrying SOPHIE’s unnerving cacophonies with Flume’s frosty future bass, “Yeah Right” is a veritable haunted house of a song. Rusty tin can drums, earthquaking bass and Kendrick Lamar await Staples in the shadows, but still he barges through. That he comes out fighting on the other side is testament to his intrepid nature.  

9/10

On new album “Witness”, Katy Perry works hard to earn attention

Katy Perry – Witness

It doesn’t matter where you were from,” Katy Perry told fans as she wound down her four-day Witness World Wide live-stream, “It matters what you grow into”. Considering she was born to Pentecostal pastors, Perry’s metamorphosis into the pin-up poster girl for the centre-left is one of pop’s most fascinating.

Perry won’t get the props she deserves for “Chained to the Rhythm” – whipping up woke-politics and rainbow reggae-disco to create a hit with a solid message. Lyrically, it’s a frown at individualism and a wink at social consciousness. Musically, it’s a fresh update of her sound.

Many will decry her album campaign’s narrative as divisive, but this being Katy Perry, Witness isn’t that complex. On “Chained…”, she spends half her time asking questions (“Are we tone-deaf?” – Katy, you in danger girl) and rhyming “bubble” with “trouble”.

Perry’s always been style-over-substance, and when you’ve got industry heavyweights (Max Martin, Mike Will Made It) and budding virtuosos (Jack Garrett, Purity Ring) on speed dial, that’s not a bad thing.

“Hey Hey Hey” is a feminist sandstorm with ropy lyrics delivered in a drunk-cheerleader drawl. It’s elevated by a grinding dubstep bassline and an up-yours appeal. Synthpop whizz-kids Purity Ring carve trance ballad “Bigger Than Me” – written after Hillary Clinton’s election defeat – like an ice sculpture.

From a distance, “Bigger Than Me”, “Swish Swish” featuring Nicki Minaj, and the unironically repetitive “Déjà Vu” echo the UK’s 2013 house revival. Of all the trends to draw from, it’s a durable one, but it does narrow the album’s commercial prospects.

Naturally, it’s when Perry does away with the flashy production that Witness really stumbles. The three ballads suffer from clunky phrasing (“I struggle / I juggle”), even when the choruses soar. That said, “Mind Maze” is a pristine take on The Knife circa Silent Shout, yet an utter bore melodically.

Witness occasionally excels in rethinking Perry’s creamy-tits brand of pop for 2017’s more subdued airwaves. “Tsunami” is a spongy bump-and-grind, making for a great one-two punch with the cherry-sweet banger “Bon Appétit”. “Roulette” spins the Tinder/Grindr experience (“I drop a pin to my location”) into an 80s-pop headrush.

Perry owes a debt to her guest stars, but the solo title track is a revelation. It’s the ideal intersection between her pop and ‘conscious’ selves – topping bubbling electronica and graceful piano with a hook of “Can I get a witness?” that begs for a response. As messy as Witness can be, songs like this show how Perry could conceivably earn one’s attention.

6.5/10

cupcakKe’s “Queen Elizabitch” delivers the sex-positive pop we deserve

cupcakKeSince last year’s minor viral hit “Vagina”, cupcakKe’s been cornering the sex-positive alt-hip-pop market. The Chicago-born rapper leaves little to the imagination – not only with graphic, spit-take one-liners (“I save dick by giving it CPR”), but by also committing to her fully-rounded persona for each and every song. 

cupcakKe dropped three mixtapes in 2016, and Queen Elizabitch is her first album proper. The bought-in beats are tighter, but the execution is scattered – pushing listeners off the dance floor and into a hard-faced confessional a little too often.

The split between Queen Elizabitch’s teeth-bearing hip-hop and X-rated dalliances with the mainstream works because neither style tries to diminish the virtues of the other. The cupcakKe eloquently recounting her impoverished childhood on “Scraps” is no more complex or worthy than the one asking to be creampied throughout “Cumshot”.

Vulgarity is the common thread – whether she’s marking her territory over menacing trap (“Bitch you ain’t hard / Probably run from the sound of a fart”), or giving life-saving blowjobs on the irresistible “Cpr”, which reworks “La Macarena” for 2017, and may be more quotable than Mean Girls.

The album continues the “Reality” saga from cupcakKe’s mixtapes. Part 4 charts the rapper’s torrid journey, and accepts her growing fame with grace. But as a dose of reality, it falls flat, simply because the character never feels like a fantasy. In fact, the body-positive “Biggie Smalls” overflows with humanity.

Furnished with tropical house synths and arpeggio squalls, it’s as commercial as Queen Elizabitch gets. What makes it special are actionable tips in lieu of dull platitudes, including “Fuck a dude if he don’t like small boobs”. There’s a gap in the market for such candour, and something tells us cupcakKe will have a great time filling it. 

8/10

The PC Music movement stalls with Cashmere Cat’s “Love Incredible”

camila-cabello
“Love Incredible” isn’t just a drum roll for Fifth Harmony dropout Camila Cabello’s solo launch. It’s a big moment too for co-producer SOPHIE of PC Music – the London record label and EDM subgenre hoping to turn hipster hype into mainstream success.

Were an algorithm set to merge popular vocal tics into one bankable voice, Cabello’s soprano might be the end result. Even live, she sounds reedy, processed, and very 2017, making her a canny match for SOPHIE’s wry, bug-eyed hyperpop.

Adrift in Cashmere Cat’s monochrome alt-R&B, Cabello unravels the swooning hooks and big-ish chorus with ease. A strange, yawning outro hints at PC Music’s novel aesthetic, but it’s a fleeting concession to the blogosphere on an otherwise trendy single.