Vince Staples' "Prima Donna" EP may not top his last album, but it shows definite progression.
Vince Staples' music has always been jarring and arresting, but that's usually thanks to his voice and his words more than any of the instrumentals he chooses. Sure, 2014's "Blue Suede" is built around a synth line that sounds like an air-raid siren, but is that more hair-raising than hearing a 21-year-old rap the line, "Hope I outlive the red roses"? The darkest musical moment on last year's incredible Summertime '06 is probably the distorted guitar dirge in the second half of "3230," but again, it pales in comparison to the stories of surveillance, survival, and retaliation that Vince weaves. Prima Donna is the moment when he finds music that matches the in-your-face qualities of his lyrics.
Over the course of the EP's 22 minutes, Staples works with four producers, two from the Summertime '06 camp, and two fresh faces. DJ Dahi and cagey vet No I.D. return, adding substantial layers of distortion to their grooves in the project's midsection, which often plays like a photo-negative of Staples' last album's deceptively sunny sound. Songwriter/producer John Hill, who got his start with Santigold and has since worked almost exclusively in the pop (Shakira, Christina Aguilera, Bleachers) and indie rock worlds (Portugal The Man, Tune-Yards), contributes to Dahi's two tracks, adding jagged guitar riffs and feedback to affect a rock vibe that Vince has never attempted before. And bookending the project are two tracks by UK producer/singer James Blake, who brings to the table a creepy, jumpy minimalism that might suit Vince better than any of the other sounds he's dipped his toes in thus far. Overall, Prima Donna is simultaneously more blues, rock and electronic influenced than any of Vince's previous work, and in keeping with sonic cousins like Run The Jewels or clipping., it sounds more post-apocalyptic too.
We open up with the first of the EP's four stark acapella interludes, in which Vince sings "This Little Light Of Mine" before interrupting himself mid-line with a gunshot, one of a few nods to suicide on Prima Donna. These lo-fi snippets are counterpoints to the cacophonous music, sounding almost like forgotten recordings from the Mississippi Delta from a century ago and showcasing Vince's apparent depression in much more personal fashion than the actual songs' rapped lyrics. Take "Smile" for example, which has a hook that (probably sarcastically) posits smiling as a solution for violence, mortality, and depression; when we arrive at the acapella outro though, he's dropped all optimism and/or humor, repeating the words "Sometimes I feel like giving up." Although he's made it out of the world he showed us on Summertime '06, Vince is far from content.
Whereas his last project focused on his pre-fame years, a childhood that forced him to grow up fast and made him who he is today, this EP is set in the present, examining the effects of fame and money of Vince's psyche. Sure, there is well-earned enjoyment ("In the black Benz speeding with my black skin gleaming"), but it's tempered at every turn by realizations of shady showbiz practices ("I'll quit if my label don't pay me, I'll run up in there with my gun in the air screaming give me the shit you owe Jay Z") and past demons ("I've made enough to know I'll never make enough for my soul"). We also get "Pimp Hand," a screed against old heads that'd be out of place if it didn't represent something else Vince has had to overcome in the past year. Prima Donna is the sound of finding yourself in the spotlight and short of rejecting it, learning how to move within it while staying true to yourself. For someone as confident and anti-establishment as Vince, that's an uphill battle that'll wreck havoc on your mind.
This EP doesn't quite measure up to the all-encompassing Summertime '06, but how could it? Vince laid a whole chapter of his childhood out for us with superb executive production from No I.D., creating an immersive world in a way that 22 minutes of music could never hope to. Prima Donna is the furthest thing from a stopgap release or a batch of throwaways though. It's a transitional period for Vince, where he's trying out new sounds and adjusting to his newfound fame, and rather than pretend like that's not happening, he fully inhabits that world of uncertainty, unease, and jarring beats, giving us as rich a picture of his current self as he did of 12-year-old Vince on Summertime. Whether he's doing huge, multi-dimensional paintings, or tiny portraits, the man doesn't do sketches. Summertime may have been his huge Last Supper fresco, but Prima Donna's his deceptively small Mona Lisa.