For the third consecutive year, Long Beach rapper Vince Staples issued a standout effort that continued to push creative boundaries while deepening his lyrical prowess. Big Fish Theory followed 2016's excellent Prima Donna EP. Continuing along the path of that set's "Big Time," Theory is a skittish thought piece wrapped around the nucleus of the Chicago footwork sound. Like a collision between the creative energies of DJ Rashad and DJ Spinn, and even the brightness of mainstream house from the likes of Disclosure, Theory finds Staples taking steps away from the ominous anxiety of the Clams Casino/Flying Lotus drone of his breakthrough Summertime '06 (produced primarily by No I.D. and DJ Dahi), without sacrificing any intensity or heft. Here, Staples assembled a studio team comprised of L.A. beat music producer Zack Sekoff, electronic duos GTA and Christian Rich, Detroit glitch artist Jimmy Edgar, SOPHIE, Flume, and more. The guest list is equally impressive. Longtime collaborator and tourmate Kilo Kish joins Bon Iver on the standout "Crabs in a Bucket," while Juicy J joins Staples on the most traditionally big bass rap burst of the title track. A pair of collaborative team efforts boasts the highest-profile names on Theory, but one sticks the landing better than the other. "Love Can Be…" features Damon Albarn, Kish, and Gorilla Zoe on the GTA-produced track that pops and jitters without ever evolving. Meanwhile, "Yeah Right" is a potent double-team effort that recruits Kendrick Lamar on a booming echo chamber of a number courtesy of SOPHIE and Flume. The latter half of the album is equally unrelenting. "Homage" rides an anxiety-ridden, Radiohead-esque landscape with the help of Kish and Rick Ross, while the twisted "Samo" returns SOPHIE to the fold with A$AP Rocky. "Party People" is a propulsive standout, but it's lead single "BagBak" that remains king on Theory. A "Humble"-sized beast that condenses Prima Donna's ethos into a single song, "BagBak" is a lyrically dense powerhouse that aims a fist directly at the intolerant and troubled state of America in 2017. On an album of thrilling highlights, it's worth the price of admission alone. Big Fish Theory cements Staples' status as one of the most talented and forward-thinking voices in rap in the late 2010s.
AllMusic Review by Neil Z. Yeung