Prima donna was once a term used to describe the lead female singer in opera companies. The position carried with it presumptuous views due to certain personality traits - prima donna’s were seen as self-absorbed, temperamental, with an inflated view on their talent and importance. One of the lasting impressions from the opera age is how the term is now a contemporary synonym for the modern day diva and narcissist. Some of the most famous, revered rappers are fitting of the prima donna title - Hi, Kanye.
The way some rappers can be seen as modern prima donnas, I believe, is the inspiration behind the title of Vince Staples’ latest EP. Prima Donna is a concept album that centers around a rapper who begins the album committing suicide and concludes with him rising to fame, a story told from the end to the beginning - this is the description that Jeff Weiss gave in his interview with Vince for Fader. If you look at the album cover, it’s a picture of Vince, but his head is massive. If he sticks to the definition of prima donna, the size of his head could represent the size of a rapper’s ego - a metaphor for his inflated sense of self.
Prima Donna is the first release from Staples since last year’s Summertime ‘06 - his double disc Def Jam debut. The album received rave reviews, the acclaim put Vince in a completely new spotlight. He is a rapper’s rapper, but his entire attitude toward the industry is a shrug at best. No matter how much praise he is showered with, Vince seems to be here only momentarily. With retirement fresh on his mind, I find it intriguing that he wrote an album about a famous rapper who decided to take his own life during a time in his life when he’s at his most famous. Summertime ‘06 dealt with his past, so I wonder how much of the seven song EP is inspired by his present. Confucius once said, “The funniest people are the saddest ones,” and Vince Staples happens to be hilarious. It makes you wonder.
Summertime ‘06 was one of my favorite albums from 2015, an album that is constantly in rotation. Even though the project is short, I’m excited to see how Vince has grown. 1 Listen Review rules haven’t changed - no stops, no rewinding, and no fast forwarding. Just a straightforward listen while hammering the keyboard with my gut reaction. Lets hope young Vince Staples has added another masterpiece to his small but growing catalog.
1. "Let It Shine"
The sound of a cassette being rewound. That’s vintage, old-school, before his time. Vincent is singing - a cappella, “This little light of mine.” He sounds depressed, sad, at the end of his road. He just shot himself. Sounds like the gun was in the room with me. Jesus that scared me.
2. "War Ready"
Holy crap. That was insane. Andre 3000 sample. It's rewinding his verse on ATLiens. WTF. This sounds like Andre is rapping about playing the piano in the dark on Mars. It’s looped. Three times it runs back. This is woozy. How much did it cost him to clear? Vince is singing about being war born ready. Production is insane. Low tempo but it feels like it’s moving. Vince said his girl looks like Mona Lisa, put her in the MOMA. Even over the strangest production Vince is comfortable. A few interesting lines on race. This is going to be deep. Who made this beat?!? If there was a sound for the walls closing in and the house burning to the ground this is what it would sound like. Content is serious. Need to revisit, rewind. It goes back to the Andre sample that sounds like Andre 3K Terminator edition.
Two songs in and I’m already losing my mind. I love the tempo, it has a bounce that feels like a post-apocalyptic party track. This electric guitar is straight from the underworld if Hades was hanging with Kid and Play. Heavy reverb on Vince's hook. This is the most experimental Vince has ever sounded. It’s exciting but also a bit overwhelming. The song feels like it could literally combust even though he’s being very gentle in his request for us to smile. Vince has said on numerous occasions that he’s inspired by genres outside of hip-hop and it has started to influence his music more openly. He is skating circles outside of the box and I love it. The rock-influence is fitting for the content. Okay the song just stopped. Vince is singing again, a cappella, a similar tone from the intro. He really is tapping into this sad boy melody. “Sometime I feel like giving up.” If he’s trying to sell us the character is slowing falling into depression, it's working. Now I'm sinking into my feelings. “Sometimes I want kill myself.” The self-loathing is strong. Don’t see how this guy is going to become a famous rapper, the radio is not going to play this!
4. "Loco" (ft. Kilo Kish)
Energetic Vince flow. He’s all the way out of his feelings. Loving this, woooooooo! Breathless Vince flow is my favorite Vince Staples flow. This beat sounds like something No I.D. made while building a birdhouse for a Phoenix. Kilo Kish is back rapping? I always loved her tone. She’s like a marshmallow. Vince came and interrupted her verse, the best interruption since Kanye and Taylor. Man, that's a Spanish woman’s voice. This hook is a bit, odd. The beat is odd. But a good kind of odd, like the strange kid in the classroom who always share the best snacks. I like Kilo and Vince going back and forth. They have a chemistry. Vince is the Hershey, Kilo is the marshmallow, together they are smores. We all love smores. Heavy claps, and this strange techno loop. Man. This album really feels like it’s getting ready to… Vince is singing a cappella again. There’s screams and bird sounds. “We all waste away.” This is the blues. Vince Staples should put out a blues album, I’d buy two copies. This EP is heavy… Yeah, if you’re happy don’t listen to this until something devastating happens in your life.
5. "Prima Donna" (ft. A$AP Rocky)
A weird loop. After this album we need to sit down and talk about how Vince Staples is such a good technical rapper. I’m talking simply flow and delivery, he is never off. I love the drums. Vince is far from the days where he only rapped in the monotone cadence. The hook poses the question, “Is It Real?” I wonder if this is the James Blake produced record? The hook sounds very James inspired. Is this A$AP Rocky? Feels like his vocals are looped? Something about addiction. So A$AP doesn’t really rap, he just has a strange bridge. Another a cappella blues number by Vince. He says he wants to live forever. A few songs ago he was ready to kill himself. This reverse storytelling is interesting.
6. "Pimp Hand"
This beat is NASTY! Feels like if Optimus Prime was a gang banger. This is the music R2-D2 would do drive bys to. This is Pharrell and The Neptunes if they wanted to make music for Fight Club. This is music for the whip. Again, he’s rapping his ASS off. If you're complaining about Lil Yatchy but not playing Vince Staples you should get your rights to tweet revoked. Van Gogh your thumbs! Yeah, this is the music you play right before you make a grand entrance. I'm going to play this when I walk into my high school reunion. 1,000’s fire emojis.
7. "Big Time"
My head is spinning. I don’t want this album to end but I want to play it again. You've got to hear how Vince understands how to work his vocals. Second verse sounds like something out of a Danny Brown notebook! Actually this beat sounds like something Danny would've rapped over during the XXX era. Vince's voice is even strangely pitched higher. It’s a rapid flow. Sheesh. This beat is rattling like it’s having an epic seizure. This is so good I want to cry tears. The beat switches after his second verse, it’s even heavier now, almost like…. it just got quiet. Nothing. No words. No more rapping. No more blues singing. “Next time on poppy street,” heavy rainfall. A voice. A child. Asking if “anybody’s there”? Fin.
I hope Vince Staples never retires. That’s the best way I could sum up this review. What a rush. What an unexpected rush. There wasn’t a moment of comfort, a moment to digest, what the project lacks in length it makes up in compelling artistry. Prima Donna is unlike anything I’ve ever heard from Vince Staples and I've been an avid listener since the first Shyne Coldchain mixtape. Artistically, he didn’t just take a step, but an entire leap forward. I’m still in awe of the Andre sample. How did he get that cleared? How much did it cost? My head is spinning and I like it.
There’s a texture to the production, to the cadence of his singing, to the tone of his rapping - there’s a feeling he's seeking to capture. It's easy for a rapper to find a comfort zone and just regurgitate what has worked in the past. There’s no regurgitation on Prima Donna, there’s no zone of comfort, it is a jungle, it is explosive, and it’s pretty damn compelling. Whoever the unnamed rapper is who ends his life at the beginning, you gravitate toward trying to pull back the layers of his story. There’s a few jewels in his verses that I caught in passing that will take a few listens to decipher. But that’s when rap is the most fun - when you hear lyrics that makes you observe, think, and rewind until you unlock the meaning.
Vince makes being a fan of rap fun again. I hope Vince Staples never retires.
By Yoh, aka I Hope Vince Staple Never Retires, aka @Yoh31.