Vince Staples – Prima Donna (Review)

prima
Def Jam / ARTium (2016)

Rising to fame alongside his West Coast compatriots, Odd Future, Vince Staples has been quietly becoming a major player in hip-hop and, in my opinion, surpassing his stylistic kinsmen. While Tyler struggled to make a tightly focused LP and Earl was still forming his sound, Staples dropped Summertime ’06 – a project that belongs in any conversation for the best hip-hop album of 2015. The production was immaculate: with a heady mixture of No I.D., DJ Dahi and Clams Casino behind the boards, the soundscapes were evocative and had a distinctive West Coast bounce. Staples took full advantage of the star-studded production cast (helped by Def Jam’s pregnant budget), elucidating his Long Beach tales with sincerity and an occasional shrug of the shoulders.

This year, Vince is back with a new EP, Prima Donna, which might not reach the dizzy heights of Summertime, but is certainly a very compelling (and rather harrowing) little project. Linking up with beatsmiths No I.D., DJ Dahi and London-based singer/producer James Blake, Staples tackles issues such as police brutality, gentrification and more subtly – his personal existential crisis.

In a recent interview with Dazed & Confused, Vince said: “I don’t lie, I don’t necessarily care enough about music or anything else.” Moreover, in speaking of his career, he had the following to say: “Worst case scenario is that it doesn’t work, and what does that even mean?” What we can gather from these two statements, then, is that Staples has an obsession with meaning, or indeed a manifest lack of it, with respect to music (certainly his music) and life more generally. He is obsessed with questions like “What makes me so special because I’m a rapper?”, and “OK, I’m finally a rapper. What now?” These sorts of problems plague many hip-hop artists, but not quite as profoundly as Vince.

The EP is littered with irony that demonstrates these issues. Firstly, the EP itself is titled Prima Donna. Vince Staples is the exact opposite of a Prima Donna: He does not seem to hold his artistry in high esteem whatsoever. Secondly, on the opening track, “Let it Shine,” Vince awkwardly mumbles, “This little light of mine / I’m gonna let it shine,” into nothingness, sounding like the class doofus being forced to sing. Vince is desperately trying to play himself down; he even edits his face on the artwork to make himself look stupid. The effect of all this is chilling, and makes the energy provided by tracks like “War Ready,” “Smile” and “Loco” all the more potent. This is the real irony of it all: Vince has no reason to play himself down; his intelligence and ability to curate projects is staggering.

Anyway, Dahi’s wild guitars on “Smile” yank us out of Vince’s hypnotic funk for a portion of the tape, while Vince raps, “I feel my life is in danger every night when I lay / So can you do me a favour – smile for me.” However, when the track cuts out, mumbling Vince is back: “Don’t say you feel my pain / Cuz I don’t even feel myself / Blood rushin’ through my brain / sometimes I wanna kill myself.” Given what I have already brought to light, I needn’t unpack this for you – needless to say, it doesn’t make for easy listening. What I will say, however, is this: It is evident that Vince isn’t necessarily sad – he’s completely numb – and this jarring change in energy is his unique way of exhibiting it.

The Dahi produced “Loco” with Kilo Kush has a similar sonic blueprint to “Smile.” Kush’s vocals lend the track a distinctive Azealia Banks feel, while Dahi’s metallic wobs keep it rave-ready. Alas, as you might expect, Vince cuts the energy short once more for another stream of mumbling, refusing to let you settle in. Moving forward, however, Staples switches it up on title track, “Prima Donna:” The harmonised hook stands in stark contrast to the other, more dissonant, hooks. What’s more, Vince’s mumbling turns its gaze outward: Utterances such as “Fed up with the young dying” and “Fed up with the gang banging” spill from Staples’ mouth. Again, his concerns are obvious – these things are happening for no reason; they lack any real meaning – and Staples can’t take it anymore.

No I.D. and Blake bring some pretty strange synths to the table for the final quarter, and after his most seminal rant, Staples’ eschews the mumbling. Instead, he uses this space for a bit of flexing, playing with various flows and rhyme schemes while keeping the hooks short and snappy. However, these tracks do nothing to diminish the conceptual obscurity of the rest of the tape, and indeed they shouldn’t: Staples’ propensity to get in his own way is what affords this EP it’s ominous charm. It is the ultimate exhibition of Vince Staples’ fucked up psyche. And I love it.

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