Album Review: FM! by Vince Staples

Last week, Long Beach rapper Vince Staples released his third album, FM! This concise but bold project offers an unwavering critique of the voyeuristic reception of hip hop culture.

Music aside, much of Vince’s art has focused on the complicated reception of hip hop culture within white America. His music video for “Señorita,” from his Prima Donna EP (2016), depicts a gritty black-and-white sketch of street violence that is later revealed to be framed in a museum for the enjoyment of a white family. The highly stylized violence portrayed is neatly framed as high art ready to be consumed by a distant audience.

Furthering this theme, Vince’s music video for the song “FUN!” is a bold critique of the voyeuristic attitude held by many fans of the genre. Through Google Maps, the video gives us a street view tour along Ramona Park in Long Beach, California, where we encounter scenes of police brutality, prostitution, and dancing kids over the chorus: “We just wanna have fun, we don’t wanna fuck up nothing.” The song is cut short, however, when the camera moves back to reveal that the video is being watched by a white teenage boy being called by his mother.

From his interviews and cynical lyrics, it’s clear that Vince Staples knows how he is received. Even his catchy bangers are interlaced with images of gang violence that will, for many of his listeners, inevitably fall on deaf ears. Instead, most of his listeners are likely seeking a simple-minded escape from the banality of everyday life, as referenced on the opening track, “Feels Like Summer,” where Vince calls out “White fans at the Coachella.”

By stylizing the album through the lens of a radio show, Big Boy’s Neighborhood, Vince also addresses the relationship between the radio and hip hop culture.

“It’s a stark reminder that so much of black pop is a celebration of the death and devastation that haunts many of its practitioners. A constant soundtrack of black pain scores America’s pleasure principle. And we all get to dial in and tune out,” argues Rodney Carmichael in a thoughtful NPR review of the album. The idea of summer, a lyrical motif scattered throughout Vince’s discography (the cartoon beach-scene album cover is reminiscent of Green Day’s Dookie), is juxtaposed with dark lyrics such as “Everybody say it’s lonely at the top, I want my homies at the top, my little homie he got shot, and now I’m moving my lonely with the .40 in the mop.”

Focusing the album through a radio show also allowed for a twenty second interlude from the elusive Earl Sweatshirt that made the internet explode with excitement. The album skits speak to Vince’s sardonic humor, and the features speak to his unwavering support of West Coast artists, from E-40 and Kamaiyah to Jay Rock and Kehlani. I recommend that you give the album a listen. Although some of the tracks left me wanting more, I think the album succeeds in exploring the relationship between entertainment and social critique.

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