“Inflection” is my album review series. This is the first entry.

I’ll be honest: Vince Staples was flying under my radar. In Track 10, “(562) 453-9382 – Skit”, radio show Big Boy’s Neighborhood takes a caller named Christian for a game called 7-7. Christian is asked to name seven famous people whose name starts with V, but can only come up with one in the allotted seven seconds (Vanessa Williams). “My man must be tweakin’,” chuckles Big Bob, but I’m with Christian on this one: I wouldn’t have pulled the name Vince Staples in seven seconds. He would’ve been somewhere between Vitor Belfort and Vincent D’Onofrio on my list, and it would’ve taken so embarrassingly long to remember them that I would’ve probably just hung up.

Anyway, after FM!, I won’t be sleeping on the 25-year old Long Beach rapper any longer. On past albums Summertime ’06 and Big Fish Theory, rich bass and dissonant chords abound. Staples isn’t afraid to venture into electronic and experimental beats, but he’ll typically revert back to club-banger compositions where his voice can take a back seat. Don’t get me wrong, he executes these in fresh and memorable ways (“Big Fish”, “Loca”). On the other hand, Staples’ signature “Norf Norf” plays differently from, say, “745”, which is an exceptional refrain in its own right, simply because of where his voice stands hierarchically. Staples elevates a track when he seizes it vocally, when his voice presents more Jason Kidd than Austin Rivers.

This control is on clear display on FM!, which intertwines effervescent summer pop anthems with Staples’ signature bleak depictions of gang culture and violence. Make no mistake, this is a remarkably fine line to tread. To start, the inclusion and recurrence of Big Bob’s Neighborhood establishes a west coast, sun-drenched, cruising-with-the-top-down vibe for the album. Additionally, while Ty Dolla $ign’s hook on “Feels Like Summer” is easily Staples’ poppiest interlude to date, it’s preceded seconds earlier by this segment, emphasizing that weather is indeed no impediment to crime in the hood:

First month still feel like summer,

Cold weather won’t stop no gunner,

Wrong hat, wrong day, I’ll kill my brother.

The various dichotomies at play in FM! are fitting amongst this musical duality. Consider the following:

  1. Despite the summer partying, violence and killing is always around (“We just wanna have fun / We don’t wanna fuck up nothin'”).
  2. Despite Staples’ rap career and financial success, he still feels rooted in hood culture and the associated paranoia (“Still struggle with the past, I’m strapped” and the hook on a later song, “Head on a swivel, no bleedin’ me”).
  3. Despite Staples’ opinions and well-known status as a public figure (“Took my mama out the set / House as big as my mouth”), he doesn’t want to make himself a target by speaking out (“Ease off me, these streets taught me / Speak softly, please don’t taunt me”).
  4. The numerous features on the album serve two purposes: 1. Strengthen FM!’s radio-esque theme, and also 2. Establish a summer block party atmosphere: everyone’s invited, and you never know who’s going to show up (the album cover encapsulates this well). But eventually, FM! concludes in a starkly opposite tone with “Tweakin'”, a brief but poignant reminder of Staples’ recurring pain from losing loved ones.

The brevity of the album and its constantly shifting moods are a reminder of how fast things can change. Or, alternatively, how fast a summer can turn dark.

Staples conveys a multitude of concepts on FM! in a nuanced, complex manner, while simultaneously putting out tracks that hook listeners immediately. To accomplish both is commendable for any artist, let alone one as young as Vince, and serves as a testament to his insight and wisdom as a rapper and musician. This venture into a pop-oriented sound does little to betray Staples’ messages regarding gang violence in minority communities. In fact, it amplifies that message while also solidifying Staples as an evolving force in modern rap.

Bars! Alert: “FUN!” (Track 7) is too funny of an image to pass up.

You know how we comin’, come from nothin’

I got Christian Dior, I’m Crippin Björk.