Vince Staples – Big Fish Theory (2017) – B+
I remember a few people comparing this to Yeezus when it dropped from the sole prospect of Staples working with electronic beat-makers (and Justin Vernon) and not because of the actual sound (that one was purposefully grotesque, this one is not)…reading mainstream reviews, I’m happy to report that those comparisons seem to be a rarity. Anyway, there was no way a great voice like Staples (“For the click, clack, clap / Or the boop, bop, bam, cuz”) over-top bass-lines like was these (“745”; “Rain Come Down”) ever going to be bad. But: whereas Summertime ‘06 quickly revealed itself as a great album, this one did all the growing it was going to do within a week of hearing it – as with this sort of approach, most of it is instant-impact. Bangers, as it were. Which is fine, but it doesn’t help that Big Fish Theory feels so slight! 10 proper songs (plus two interludes) clocking in at 36 minutes, with a lot of time devoted to rather tedious hooks (“Yeah Right,” “Homage,” “Party People”) such that Big Fish Theory barely feels more substantial than the conceptual Prima Donna EP from last year. Delegating the high-profile guests to hook duty (Juicy J, A$AP Rocky; Damon Albarn is wasted) certainly didn’t help, nor the fact that sometimes Staples feels second to the beats. Moreover, the only song here that breaches the 4-minute mark only does so because Vince Staples repeats a verse wholesale. (Yes, I’m aware MF DOOM and Ol’ Dirty Bastard did this as well, but those albums didn’t have the laser-precision that this one has.) A good album, with no bad songs and a few great moments: the vocal clip on “Crabs in a Bucket” (great intro), the blasts of sound adding weight to Kendrick Lamar’s verse on “Yeah Right”, Ty Dolla Sign’s choruses on “Rain Come Down” that feel like they could go on eternally (with the splattering drums imitating rain).
Shabazz Palaces – Quasarz: Born on a Gangster Star
It’s heartbreaking to see the lack of hype around new Shabazz Palaces in 2017; I guess people lost interest when Lese Majesty actually asked listeners to pay attention (the nerve!). True, they didn’t help themselves by releasing two albums and with titles like these (the deliberate misspelling of quasar, the invocation and personification of machines and two albums about a concept that only Ishmael Butler understands all gave me traumatic flashbacks to the Smashing Pumpkins’ MACHINA albums); just another case of imagining the better single album that could’ve resulted from an artist releasing two albums back to back (from 2017, see also: Future). Born on a Gangster Star has bigger highlights compared to its twin: Thundercat’s bass and the beat-switch on “Since C.A.Y.A.”; the sample of Dee Dee Sharp on “Shine a Light” (the most normal song in Shabazz Palaces’ discography); the rave-up of “Moon Whip Quäz,” even if repetitive. But it also has a lot of formless tracks (“When Cats Claw”, “Dèesse Du Sang” and “Federalist Papers”); even a second-tier track like “That’s How City Life Is” feels underdeveloped despite both parts of the 2 and a half minute song offering pleasures. And not that Ishmael Butler’s any good as a rapper (ie. the awkward way he delivers “He’s the former, I’m the latter / He got to buy all the things he brag bout – me?” on the opener; “Her voice was like a shining sea of um, sapphires” on “Eel Dreams”), but the instrumental tracks are just begging for something.
Clams Casino – 32 Levels (2016) – B-
Tame is the word for this one. The problem isn’t that the album is split into two halves to showcase Clams Casino’s hip-hop and R&B talents (just take it as two EPs like you would a double disc, unless you’re one of those “I have to sit through the whole thing in one sitting!”-sorts). No, the problem is that only one of these tracks works the whole way through: “Witness”, with an atypically laser-focused Lil B over vocal/synth barrages. The title track is much too dirgey; the union of A$AP Rocky and Lil B deserved something greater than “Be Somebody” (the brag “We just made history, you know that, right?” is undeserved). The second-best, “All Nite,” has that interesting backdrop that makes it sound like you’re in an avian conservatory, but it also has a completely useless bridge, and I’m thankful it didn’t end up on Summertime ’06 (which it predates) because it doesn’t have the atmosphere that Clams’ beats on that album had. And I never thought much of Clams’ alternative R&B work, even as he’s imitating Arca’s rattle (“Thanks to You”) or Blood Orange’s 80s’ love-letters (“Into the Fire”); Future Islands’ Samuel T. Herring isn’t exactly the most nuanced of singers, but he’s stripped to a single trick (the deepness of his baritone, like someone playing up the reading of a horror story) on “Ghost in a Kiss.” To be expected, I guess: it’s about the same ratio of good-forgettable that we should’ve been used to from Clams by now.