Vince Staples' "FM!" Is Breezy, Brief and (Mostly) Satisfying (Review)
Online presence that he is, Vince Staples has been nonchalantly hinting to the world that a release of his was imminent. Sure enough, this past week confirmed the album drop would be on Friday, November 2nd at midnight, and Staples delivered with "FM!". While it is 11 songs, the term "songs" is applied very loosely, making "FM!" really more of an EP than an LP. More of an entertaining diversion than a full-length album, "FM!" plays like an out of place shot of summer fun with some of Staples' best hooks and smoothest flows.
Much like Queens of the Stone Age's "Songs for the Deaf," Vince Staples' semi-surprise release uses an FM radio show as a framework for the album. Introduced by hosts of "Big Boy's Neighborhood," the record kicks off with "Feels Like Summer," which balances upbeat momentum with melancholy, a unique skill that Vince Staples has always been adept at. With a synth hook that, oddly enough, reminded me of Linkin Park's "Faint," "Feels Like Summer" both allows for braggadocio and laments the "here one day, gone the next" brutality of Vince's early days on the the streets of Long Beach. Ty Dolla Sign's choruses compliment Staples' flow nicely, and the song just feels like its hitting its stride when it launches directly into "Outside!" This is something to get used to, as most of the songs don't even cross the 2 minute mark. That's not to say that this is a fault. In fact, to the album's credit, the brevity of the songs allows for a forward momentum that never really slows down or lets the listener lose interest. "Outside!" keeps the album firing along, somehow sounding playful despite the fact that it is entirely focused on guns and gang life.
Even more so than "Feels Like Summer," "Outside!" feels like it is cut-off mid-verse to give way to "Don't Get Chipped," the catchiest and most energetic song of "FM!"'s hits. Cubeatz contributions to the productions are evident, and Jay Rock's mellow, almost disinterested chorus works as a counterpoint to Staples, who is at his most theatrical here. Adopting a voice that is pronounced and cartoonish, Vince almost seems like he's playing a character, a goofy kid who wants money to buy "a whole crate of guns." It's almost too good for how brief it is, and is followed by "Relay," a somewhat darker sounding track. "Relay" breaks back briefly at the end into the radio show, which plays a 20 second clip of "New earlsweatshirt" music. It's genuinely a bummer that it is only 20 seconds, because the interlude rivals some of earlsweatshirt's own solo work and almost sounds like a freestyle he came up with on the spot.
At this point, we run into what I will refer to as "The Vince Staples Problem." In short, the Vince Staples Problem is that Vince often writes insanely catchy verses which devolve into choruses that are more or less one phrase repeatedly endlessly and obnoxiously. I don't like lumping all of these songs together, because they do vary in quality, but "Run the Bands," "FUN!" and "No Bleedin," the next three songs, all suffer from this problem. "Run the Bands" is particularly confounding because the verses are so original and clever, but the repeated group chant of the title is so goddamn irritating. "FUN!" fares a little better because it is actually pretty fun, largely due to a bouncy, energetic beat. It really drags in the back half though. There are only so many times I can hear someone say "knock a bitch down." "No Bleedin" doesn't pick up the slack much, being both droning and largely uninspired, with Kamaiyah Johnson's guest vocals adding little.
Seriously though, what is with these interludes? Tyga's interlude verse is just as awesome as earlsweatshirt's, and the fact that neither of them got a full song to input on seems like a waste, especially after the lull in the middle of this album. The second to last song isn't even a song, but a skit where a caller to the radio show fails miserably at a quiz challenge. Its not really that funny, but I also don't go to my rap albums for hilarious skits so it is what it is, I guess. Luckily the last song rounds things out in a nice way. "Tweakin," with an oddly passionate chorus by Kehlani, brings back that combination of beat and melancholy from "Feels Like Summer," a sound that also has characterized a lot of Staples' earlier works.
As a whole, "FM!" is a fun but largely empty endeavor. There is enough in here to enjoy, and the pace is quick enough that even if you don't like one song, it isn't long before another abruptly cuts in. Vince Staples remains one of the most inspired rappers around today, but more than anything, I wish somebody would teach him how to write a chorus.