On his third studio album, FM!, Vince Staples offers a tight package of heavy hitting tracks, laden with dark themes that listeners have come to expect from the Def Jam rapper.
The sonic palette of FM! differs significantly from that of Vince’s previous two studio albums. While Big Fish Theory featured slick, watery rave-rap instrumentals, the beats on FM! are built upon meaty basslines, punctuated drums, and eerie synth lines. Vince showcases exceptional versatility as he tackles each instrumental. He effortlessly adapts his flow track to track, and his energy is equally intense in his more languid bars as it is when he is at his most raucous.
As the title FM! might suggest, Staples frames the album as a radio broadcast, led loosely by L.A. radio personality Big Boy. It’s hardly the first time an artist has used the concept of a radio show to bridge songs together on an album, but it works exceedingly well on FM! Big Boy’s charismatic banter serves as a launch pad for Vince and context for the celebration of West Coast hip hop culture. Clocking in at only 22 minutes, it’s a brisk listen; yet, Vince focuses on quality over quantity.
One of the album’s stand-out tracks is the energetic G-funk tribute “FUN!” which features legendary West Coast rapper E-40. Vince matches the bouncy instrumental with a strut-like swagger, culminating in one of the album’s most catchy hooks. Lyrically, Vince recounts the harsh reality of his teenage years spent entrenched in gang life with the Long Beach Crips. Still, Vince finds room to weave his dark sense of humor into the track as he raps, “My black is beautiful/But I still shoot at you, dawg.”
The track “Run the Bands” is as another highlight on FM! On this cut, Vince modulates his voice into a braggadocious, youthful squak as he raps about a single-minded fixation with making money. His sharp delivery stands out against the hollow, bell-like synth pads oscillating throughout the instrumental and melds nicely with the rattling trap hi-hats. Vince’s witty wordcraft is in top form as he compares his off-white Nikes to a “half-time Michael” and claims that his house is so big that it needs “Kanye lipo.”
There are a few moments on FM! where the boisterous energy sags a bit. The two interludes “New earlsweatshirt (Interlude)” and “Brand New Tyga (Interlude)” would feel out of place in any other album- but within the context of the album’s radio broadcast structure, they fit. Still, as far as interludes go, they aren’t terribly compelling and don’t contribute a great deal to the album.
Considering that it’s been three years since the release of Earl Sweatshirt’s last album, his feature is a welcome addition. Yet, the brief interlude contains one of Earl’s least interesting verses to date. It’s slightly disappointing, especially since Earl has proven that he can dominate a track with a single verse, as he did on Danny Brown’s 2016 track “Really Doe.”
Tyga’s short feature on the album is decidedly less enticing. While his inclusion fits in line with the focus on West Coast hip hop artists, Tyga’s short club-rap jam breaks the sonic focus of the album ever so slightly. Perhaps if there were a wider variety of hip hop artists and styles included in additional album interludes, its inclusion would be warranted.
Despite these diversions, FM! stands strong as one of Vince Staples’ most accessible and catchy musical efforts. It’s refreshingly tight and focused, in an era of hip hop where many artists seem to be heading in the opposite direction. On FM!, Vince has crafted a radio station of his own, one which celebrates West Coast hip hop artistry and speaks truth to the realities of his upbringing in Long Beach. It’s a sordid affair at times, but Vince’s consistent energy and well-crafted songs will keep listeners engaged and coming back to embark on the gloomy journey over and over again.