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Commercialization and hip hop: an FM! album review

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Commercialization and hip hop: an FM! album review

"FM!" is Vince Staples's most recent work, but is only 22 minutes long.

Album art copyright of Def Jam records

"FM!" is Vince Staples's most recent work, but is only 22 minutes long.

Album art copyright of Def Jam records

Album art copyright of Def Jam records

"FM!" is Vince Staples's most recent work, but is only 22 minutes long.

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I was on a red-eye flight from Chicago to D.C. (coming home from a journalism conference, in fact) when I first heard “FM!”. I couldn’t get to sleep despite the fact I’d been awake for 19 hours. As soon I heard the beat on that first song, I was fully awake.

Unlike “Big Fish Theory,” Vince Staples’s 2017 release, “FM!” feels less experimental.

While we still hear some of his techno tendencies on songs like “Relay,” snares and quick hi-hats compose much of the beats for “FM!”. While “Big Fish Theory” found Vince switching between techno-saturated solemnity and hype tracks like “BagBak”, “FM!’s” production is almost all the latter.

That’s not to say Vince isn’t still self-reflective. Now he’s just doing it through a persona that’s braggadocious, ironic and very exciting. There isn’t a single song on the project where I would criticize his rapid-fire flow.

He slows down on “Tweakin’”, which provides a good counterpoint to all his speed. It feels remarkably reminiscent of Staples’s debut studio album, “Summertime ‘06”. I understand why it’s at the end of the album.

I first thought Vince would use the word tweaking when referring to drug addiction; a “tweaker” is a drug addict. However, Staples puts another spin on the word, making it synonymous with insanity. The primary topic of the song is the violence so common in Vince’s hometown and the loss that comes with it. He talks about Jabari, Half and Johnny: all dead. In this song, we’re reassured that Vince is still the same introspective rapper we’ve loved from the beginning.

However, this album still has less of Vince’s introspection than his previous projects. That assumption seems true until you consider the theme for this project. Staples ties the album together with soundbites from the LA radio show “Big Boy’s Neighborhood”.  

This theme is brilliant.

It adds to Vince’s irony. By simulating a radio program (and therefore the mainstream), the album seems to imitate the current state of hip hop. Vince gives us songs that feel very mainstream, and that’s surprising, especially because “Big Fish Theory” was so experimental (and honestly weird-sounding). In “FM!”, you can hear him mocking mainstream themes.

“FUN!” is probably the best example of this. The chorus says it all: “We just wanna have fun, We don’t wanna fuck up nothin’, We don’t wanna fuck up nothin’, Fun, we don’t wanna fuck up nothin’, And we don’t give a fuck about nothin’, We just wanna have fun.”

Staples is putting an ironic spin on a theme throughout the genre.

The music video for “FUN!” is also a biting reminder of what hip hop has become. The video shows a white teenager, presumably in a secure middle class town, looking at Long Beach through Google Maps while listening to the song. The teenager sees scenes of violence, police brutality, theft and domestic abuse – basically all the themes of any rap song.

Vince is tearing into what he sees as the corruption of hip hop by its commercialization. It’s no longer about the pain that comes with living somewhere like Ramona Park, it’s about making money by appealing to a sense of toughness and edginess in people who have never experienced the kind of loss Staples grew up with all around him.

Through this lense, the whole album gains a degree of irony that Staples’s arrogant tone plays into perfectly.

Of course this isn’t to say that the songs aren’t still masterful if taken at face value, they simply have another layer of depth because of Staples’s genius theme.

“FM!” is sure to go down as one of the most innovative projects of the year.

Here’s where I feel obligated to include an essential caveat.

Staples’s assessment of the rap industry hits me especially hard. I’m white and middle class, and I listen to hip hop. Watching the video for “FUN!” hit me a little closer to home than I care to admit.

I haven’t experienced anything remotely similar to the poverty and violence endured in the places where hip hop thrives. The music was born out of these conditions, but recently we’ve seen it become more and more mainstream.

By enjoying hip hop (and writing about it), am I part of the problem? I don’t know for sure.

It doesn’t feel right to deny people the insights and beauty of an entire genre because they don’t fit a certain mold.

On the other hand, culture vultures are definitely not a good thing. American music is irrevocably tied to the class inequalities born out of slavery and systematic oppression. Post Malone has cruised into millions of dollars out of a middle class white family. He even said, “if you’re looking to think about life, don’t listen to hip-hop.” That’s not right. And if you’re a Post Malone fan, please come argue with me.

However, poetry can transcend class. When I hear Earl Sweatshirt talk about growing up in between cliques, I relate. When Kendrick Lamar talks about peer pressure, I realize I’ve been in the exact same spot. When Vince Staples talks about friends dying, I can’t say I’ve experienced anything like it, but I can appreciate his experience. I even hope it makes me a little more open to the world.

I guess the real issue is when the hype gets blown out of proportion.

Humans will always take things overboard. The most important thing to remember is that there’s a difference between appropriation and appreciation. You can learn from a song about murder just as much as you can learn from a song about love.

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