Release Date: August 26, 2016
Label: BLACKSMITH/ARTium/DEF JAM
Vince Staples records feel like transmissions. On early mixtapes like Stolen Youth and his Shyne Coldchain series, they were the raw, unfiltered diary entries of a teenager on the cusp of adulthood. Last year’s official double-LP debut, Summertime ’06, was a two-disc missive that looked back on the summer of turning 13, when Staples said he felt his life beginning to turn — yet it also dealt with being in his early 20s and measuring the distance he had traveled since losing his innocence. His latest EP, Prima Donna, is framed like a literal broadcast: The intro is Vince inserting a cassette into a tape player and pressing record, performing a droll rendition of “This Little Light of Mine” before a gunshot abruptly ends it. It’s a callback to the idyllic opening of Summertime ’06, which ended the same way — the promise of peace destroyed by an ever-looming threat of violence.
Contrary to what its title might suggest, Prima Donna is not a self-serious meta-treatise on the young rap star’s sudden grappling with fame, success, or fortune after Summertime ‘06 received near-universal acclaim, and his TV-ready wit, charm, and humor put him in front of the camera for several ESPN shows and GQ videos. It might be his bleakest work yet — he ends “Smile” with another transmission into a cassette deck repeating, “Sometimes I feel like giving up.” On the “ATLiens”-sampling “War Ready,” he says, “I made enough to know I’ll never make enough for my soul,” which isn’t even a cynical line: True to everything he’s ever put on record or said to the press, Staples is a pragmatist. He neither romanticizes violence nor outright condemns gang life; he doesn’t linger on its brutality to valorize the struggle or revel in it for authenticity points. He’s a chronicler who puts his thoughts at the forefront of his stories, like a great first-person essayist.
Living life as a young man who happens to be a successful rapper touring the world does color Prima Donna, though. Staples deals with hotel stress (“Let me tell you about how a nigga went crazy at the Marriott, having Kurt Cobain dreams”) and performance anxiety: “I think I’m finna pull a Wavves on the Primavera stage,” is one of the record’s most memorable and vivid lines, because it sounds exactly like something the 23-year-old might say with a laugh, with just the slightest shift in context. Staples is a compelling rapper partly because of how ably he shifts between tones and moods, like the high-schooler who’s smart and mature enough to joke around with his teachers but cool enough to be popular with the entire class. The production choices continue to impress as well — instead of distracting from Vince’s nasal tone, the lush beats for him here (credit goes to No I.D., James Blake, and DJ Dahi) round out his sound and diversify his catalog.
Kilo Kish appears simultaneously as Staples’ id and conscience on “Loco,” where he raps about holding a .44 in a hotel room while staring at a mirror. Kish attempts to talk him out of it: “Remember how we used to fight in Pre-K / And mama would whoop that ass for three days / Parties at McDonald’s for our birthday, it’s okay.” Prima Donna isn’t a prosaic tale about transitioning from the streets and wallowing in a new reality as a major-label artist. Instead, it’s about how the MC’s experience and knowledge of the former informs his perspective on the latter; how the fear of random violence from the streets and a perpetual threat of institutionalized violence from police and other authorities as a black man doesn’t leave you just because you’re onstage. The desire for self-harm Staples feels alone inside an ostensibly safe hotel room is perhaps a triggered reaction to living with the feelings of fear and dread he had as a boy who lost his innocence at 13, seeing friends die, imprisoned, changed by gang initiations as teenagers.
Even though it’s a brisk seven songs, it lingers as the best pieces of writing tend to do. There’s no resolution to the record, so you’re left contemplating what Staples has said for the past half-hour, and wondering about “next time on Poppy Street” — the television-style bumper at the EP’s closing seconds, presumably for the next broadcast from Staples’ brilliant mind.