The emergency broadcast from North Long Beach fails to transmit…

“I don’t feel like I need to go too deeply into explaining my lyrics. People don’t care about what’s happening in Long Beach, or Compton, or Watts… When they look at these areas, and look at these people, they don’t see themselves. Until people really see themselves within other people, they can’t genuinely care for their betterment,”  Vince Staples commented on the Genius page for his song ‘Señorita’.

With its zany, ‘Dookie’-influenced artwork, ‘chill’ playlist-friendly track titles like ‘Feels Like Summer’ and ‘FUN!’, plus its large track count to short runtime ratio (which will no doubt maximise streaming profits), you might assume that ‘FM!’ is a cynical attempt by Vince Staples to cash in on the strange commercial trends of hip-hop in 2018.

And you’d be right. Sort of.

‘FM!’ is just over 22 minutes long yet contains 11 tracks, affording it solid ‘album’ status and pinning it at the top of Staples’ various streaming profiles. Two of its three skits are basically adverts, reminding the listener/consumer that there’s new material on the horizon from his friends Earl Sweatshirt and Tyga. It’s reportedly the first of five albums Staples has already recorded and plans to drop over the next year, the pivot-to-profit tactic that the artist formerly known as Kanye West and his G.O.O.D Music label are currently meant to be pioneering.

Yet, despite its seemingly commercial ambitions, ‘FM!’ is not an album intended to bring in new fans.

Staples is an incredibly self-aware artist whose singular vision has led him from strength to strength, deftly telling the world his North Long Beach-based origin story on ‘Summertime 06’ before dropping the genre-busting ‘Prima Donna’ and graduating to another level on its awe-inspiring follow-up ‘Big Fish Theory’. He has proved himself time and again to be an artist comfortable with blazing his own trail, rather than just reflecting the conventions of the increasingly homogenous scene surrounding him.

Over this journey Staples has evolved dramatically as a lyricist, splicing his dialectic North LA-isms with more universally-minded metaphors and unparalleled feats of tongue-twisting wordplay. So, on first listen, his decision to jettison this development on ‘FM!’ and revert instead to the braggadocio on geographically limited lyricism of his debut and ‘Hell Can Wait’ feels alienating.

His non-stop dropping of Long Beach references and the violent imagery that permeated his youth impies that it is 2014’s Vince Staples on the mic, not 2018’s. This - coupled with its local radio broadcast format (where various ‘on air’ voices drift in and out between tracks) - compounds a very specific sense of time and, more particularly, place. ‘Surely we’ve heard this all already?’ comes the predictable kneejerk reaction, ‘And on a double album no less!’

This reaction underlines what is the core message of the album: Vince Staples might have changed but his hometown hasn’t. As the radio host puts it on the opening track: "No matter when it is man, it always feels like summer in the neighborhood." The heat of North Long Beach never dies down, the shots from the streets on which he grew up have not been silenced and, as Staples points out on poignant closer ‘Tweakin’’, his friends have not stopped dying.

Staples' comments about ‘Señorita’ effectively explain everything you need to know about this collection of blunt vignettes. ‘FM!’ is a dispatch, an emergency broadcast which allows Staples to instantly convey where he’s coming from without sanitisation or qualification. In many ways it’s like ‘To Pimp a Butterfly’ had Kendrick Lamar decided to end that record after the first few tracks where he raps as his ignorant teenage self. Maybe Staples plans to use this album as a foundation for his four meted full-length follow ups? This might well inject it with more meaning in hindsight.

As it stands ‘FM!’ is little more than a placeholder - an interesting but self-indulgent sketch from an artist who could be creating masterpieces.

6/10

Words: Josh Gray

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