Album Review : Vince Staples - Prima Donna (2016)
It's a hip thing to say hip-hop fell off a cliff somewhere around the turn of the millennium. It's not false, 21st century rappers have little to do musically and culturally with their predecessors. A few rebels and innovators bridge the gap between both generations better than others, though. I'm thinking here of Kendrick Lamar, Run the Jewels, the Odd Future guys and, for better or worse, Kanye West. The latest and perhaps most intriguing addition to that list is Long Beach-based rapper and fascinating internet person Vince Staples. I've been meaning to review his latest EP Prima Donna since it got released last summer and I have no valuable excuse for only getting to it now, but Staples' music is perhaps the only thing cooler than hearing him talk on pop culture so I HAVE to tell you about it. Hip-hop is great again and Vince Staples is one of the reasons why.
Now, Prima Donna...
A common thread that makes contemporary hip-hop interesting to me is that it's not just a product. It's a paradigm, a narrative universe if you will. The first track on Prima Donna Let it Shine introduces the paradigm on the album in a simple but vivid way. He mutters to himself the chorus of classic gospel song This Little Light of Mine for about 40 seconds until a gunshot abruptly ends the song and introduces the album. These "muttering" interludes, for lack of a better world, are important on Prima Donna because they portray Vince talking to himself. They draw a line between the person and the product, which is something Vince has always been pretty adamant about. There are others in the record, notably on Smile ("Sometimes I feel like giving up") and the title song ("I just want to live forever" and "I just wanna show you better"). These interludes are essential in portraying the duality between who Vince is and what he does.
My favorite songs on Prima Donna was Smile, for its heartbreaking lyrical content which portrays the nature of success with stunning honesty: I know that money come and go so money not my motive no mo'/I made enough to know I'll never make enough for my soul/I turned my back on my friends/I turned my back on my home/I left the street where I've grown/To chase the yellow brick road. We tend to crucify successful people who aren't happy unless they kill themselves, but perhaps no one before Vince Staples found such precise words to express how artificial and hollow it feels. I love the inclusion of rock guitars on the beat which is quasi-ironic. It's way too seductive and infectious for its melancholic lyrics, yet the contradiction works brilliantly. There are at least three bangers on Prima Donna: Smile, Loco and Pimp Hand, but the former was my favorite because of its fearless countercultural leanings.
Loco, featuring Kilo Kish, was another highlight on Prima Donna, yet is more of a conventional hip-hop track. The beat is much more minimalistic than the rest of the album and the song lies heavily on the terrific vocal performances. Vince and Kish have tremendous chemistry and the lively back-and-forth between them (Vince is not really listening to her, more like unleashing his emotions) creates such a fun and original identity to it). I would have a hard time singling out a low moment on Prima Donna because it's such a short and tight EP, but I would probably say it's either War Ready or Big Time. The former is a great song in itself, but feels out of place on such a personal and melancholic release and the latter simply doesn't have a strong enough identity to live up to the other material on the EP. There's no bad songs on Prima Donna per se but this album is so unique and contextual, some material comes off as less pertinent than other. It's almost a concept album.
Vince Staples doesn't look like a happy person. I don't know how much of it is an act, but I tend to believe people recklessly committing to such a cohesive vision. He does bring value to his audience, though. Whether it's with his unique blend of hip-hop or with his razor-sharp wit. He's only twenty-three years old too, which is mind-blowing. He's one of the most interesting young public intellectuals we've had in a while AND also happens to be a recording artist with vision and purpose. What's not to like. If you're not familiar with Vince Staples (I'm always surprised how little know he is), I highly suggest you start with his album Summertime '06, which is the logical starting point, really. Prima Donna is more of a 201 class on Vince Staples, his artistic vision and his output on the world. If you're a hip-hop fan, this is the most exciting new artist since Kendrick Lamar.