The tightly constructed record opens with “Feels Like Summer,” a buoyant dedication to the season’s sunny delights and quiet dangers. “Let’s go ahead and make you feel like summer,” Big Boy says on the song’s intro. Immediately afterward, Staples comes in with a stunningly astute couplet: “Summertime in the LB wild / We gon’ party ’til the sun or the guns come out.”
Staples is at his best when deftly painting this juxtaposition: how casually, how mundanely the threat of violence can exist in the same atmosphere as even the most joyful experiences. “Feels Like Summer” has all the hallmarks of a pool-party banger, but its movement belies the lyrical depth. The South L.A.–born Ty Dolla $ign glides seductively over the opening track’s chorus. He rides around in his “drop top with the top down now,” flirting with women and showing off as he is wont to do. But in the song, as in a Long Beach summer, death waits just around the corner. “Still struggle with the past, I’m strapped,” Staples raps after Ty Dolla $ign’s chorus. “Somebody gotta watch my back.”
Read: Ty Dolla $ign isn’t just a feature artist; he’s a star
Where prior records such as Summertime ’06 and Big Fish Theory have found Staples addressing his anxieties about mortality and co-option on tracks shaped by jarring, cerebral production, FM! weaves the rapper’s fears into an eclectic soundscape. His pain has not disappeared, but it’s been sublimated. The prolific producers Kenny Beats and Hagler lend a more radio-friendly sound to the album, conjuring a musical world that is at once bright and ominous. FM! offers these tonal contrasts as balance, not contradiction. Against the eerily knocking backbeat of “Run the Bands,” Staples compares his career pursuits to those of the Olympic medalist Jesse Owens. The song’s production builds with a sinister scramble, as if to echo both Owens’s speed and the ever-present dangers that followed the runner in his life. Staples isn’t immune to these either.
On the standout “Don’t Get Chipped,” Staples qualifies a famed rallying cry from the late soul singer Sam Cooke. “Sammy told me that a change gone come (Gone come),” Staples raps before questioning the inclusivity of Cooke’s civil-rights era hit: “I’m not going if my gang won’t come (Won't come).” Here, as in his earlier work, the rapper is preoccupied with the well-being of the collective. After a homegrown chorus from the Watts-born rapper Jay Rock, Staples both laments the isolating effects of fame and ponders correctives that bridge the gap:
Everybody say it's lonely at the top
I want my homies at the top, my little homie he got shot
And now I’m moving my lonely with the .40 in the mop
Finna pull up early morning and somebody getting dropped
I throw a party on your block, like I’m Tommy the clown
Hundred thousand dollar car, bet you proud of me now
Took my mama out the set, house as big as my mouth
The rapper’s reference to the house he purchased for his mother is one of several moments in which Staples negotiates his concern for the community that raised him. Staples has spoken at length about his frustrations with the media’s tendency to dismiss his music by discussing it solely through the lens of his past gang involvement. Outspoken on Twitter and in interviews, he has attracted ire in recent years for his strident commentary on American social issues—most notably, the trenchant effects of racism. The gap-toothed young’un is cheeky and irreverent, his opining often taking a satirical bent: He’s made comments like “The national anthem don’t even slap,” a reference to the absurdity of the backlash against professional football players who decided to kneel while the song was played.