Master of War: Vince Staples & Prima Donna

Doc Zeus examines Vince Staples' excellent new EP, Prima Donna.
By    September 1, 2016

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Doc Zeus’ rider is 12 pages long.

It’s dangerously unfair to suggest that any one artist can possibly serve as the moral conscience for his generation. Therefore, it’s inherently troubling that the press frequently places Long Beach rapper Vince Staples into that role. As a young artist unafraid to tell the world how he really feels, Vince is absurdly quotable—possessing botha  deadpan wit and a worldly candor that can unfortunately be used by the media to make Vince seem comically alien.

His interviews are broadly entertaining but it’s troubling to see Vince often cast as a sideshow. He’s been pushed into a role as the thinking man for millennial rappers just as willing to offer controversial click-baity opinions about the state of hip-hop—sure to piss off older fans—as he is to offer “wacky” thoughts about pop culture. How delightfully ironic to watch an articulate black, ex-gang banger go viral giving his review of health food snacks!

Thus, it’s not a shock that Vince seems to rap like there is a guillotine pressing against the back of his neck. If Vince is the moral conscience of his generation of rappers, it’s only because his words hold more weight than most in Donald Trump’s America and the age of clickbait media. On last year’s double LP Summertime ’06 Staples established himself as an artist worthy of everybody’s respect. Staples’ music carried a resigned world-weariness giving his songs a lost innocence. They touched on tragic gang life and the pressures of being black in a racist America—a halting gravitas that all but few of his peers have been able to muster.

More than anything, Summertime ’06 stressed the worldview of a young man irate with the pressures, bullshit, and injustice surrounding his everyday life. It’s a sharp contrast from the affable jokester role that the media seeks out so their videos can go viral.

Vince might have earned critical acclaim with the release of Summertime ‘06 but it doesn’t seem as if success has relieved him from the pressures of his life as his new EP, Prima Donna, shows the budding superstar at his most morosely discontent. Prima Donna is a concept record surrounding an artist’s presumed suicide in light of his new found fame.

It begins with a grainy recording of Staples glumly singing a traditional children’s gospel hymn, “This Little Light Of Mine,” before the sound of a gunshot rings out—dragging the listener deep down into the growing darkness of Vince’s psyche. Vince continually returns to these spoken word interludes throughout the EP, giving this tight, seven-song starter kit both a structure and a somber through line.

While the expansive sprawl of Summertime ’06 gave Vince the space to vastly analyze the lurking darkness in every public space. From Long Beach to the Long Island, Prima Donna feels like Vince turning inward to diagnose the cost of doing business in a racist country. The smaller runtime on this project—a brisk 22-minutes this time around—partially limits the scope of the record. Nonetheless, you see the growing darkness of Vince’s psyche as songs like “Loco,” “War Ready,” and the title cut chronicle an artist on the verge of clinical madness (and not necessarily Staples himself — this is far from rote autobiography).

It’s ironic because the signature trait of Vince Staples’ early music was always been how cold and dead eyed it all seems (“Summertime” flashed a more romantic but equally scarred side). While the vanguard of popular rap has retreated towards monotonous gas-lighting clinical narcissism and/or glassy, prescription drug surrealism, Staples’ music keeps the listener starkly sober, refusing to administer anything that might dull your senses. Staples keeps the vocals to his sharply written raps clean and precise, keeping gimmick vocal affectations and electronic enhancement at a minimum lest they end up distorting the meaning behind his words. The craft in Prima Donna’s lyricism is stunning and you can tell the great thought that Vince puts behind each word, reference, story, and metaphor on it.

Critics might suggest that Vince’s emphasis on lyricism is doggedly traditionally and at expense of a broader musicality—compromising melody and strong hook writing for an overemphasis on its own lyrics. However, this is almost assuredly missing the damn point of Vince Staples’ artistry. Frequent collaborators No I.D. and DJ Dahi have crafted Vince a sound that fits the mad world of Vince songs—using an electro-tinged minimalism reminiscent of early Def Jux records or Kanye West’s Yeezus.  

The EP’s best song, “Loco,” combines squelching synth screeches and an underlying percussive staccato rhythms into a bizarre, almost dance track that matches Vince’s story of a growing suicidal madness in a series of New York hotel rooms. Other tracks such as the rock-inflected “Smile” offers a distorted, bluesy guitar riff for Vince to lament his shame at his own hypocrisy and the weight that bears on his soul.

Prima Donna isn’t Vince’s most complete record—as a seven-song EP coming off the sprawling transcendence of a classic double album, how could it be? But it’s a record that has a dogged dedication to craft and demands the listener to pay full attention to it. Vince’s words weigh a ton so when he repeatedly says on the record that at times he feels like giving up, it’s our job as the listener to hold our end of the bargain and bear some of the load on our end. Just to make sure that society doesn’t topple one of the most gifted young artists among us.