Album of the Week: Vince Staples' 'Prima Donna'

On August 29, 2016

by Michael Penn II


Every week, we tell you about an album we think you need to spend time with this week. This week's album is Vince Staples' Prima Donna EP.

I wonder if we truly deserve Vince Staples, but the uselessness of such thoughts he condemns time and again. Vince shoots holes through his own presumed "stardom," reminding us that we have a sense of entitlement to the human beings that craft something we connect to, yet we really know nothing more than what they display. It’s the same sightline that can explain the recent wiping of Vince’s Twitter, the deadpan truth found in his interviews, the demeanor of treating rap like a job rather than basking in the throne many hold it to be. The excess of celebrity doesn’t appear very moving; the bills are paid, his mama might eventually get a Jeep, but the bright lights aren’t even what he signed up for. He didn’t even wanna be a rapper, it’s just working for him.

This sharp sensibility has driven the work since Shyne Coldchain, Vol. 1: an 18-year-old Vince told the tales of his life in a grown monotone consumed by rage and confusion. On “Versace Rap,” he envisioned bulletproof pews and laughed in the face of a White God since, “prayer never moved my grandmama outta Compton.” Prima Donna is a matured execution of that tension, a harrowing account that’s much more intrigued by the tremors of fame than the trappings we’re used to. This time, the Vince in this universe is a doomed superstar, constantly teetering on the edge of suicide. He aligns himself with the best of company throughout - Cobain, Da Vinci, Edgar Allen Poe - to illustrate such a peril, where the grief of his gangsta shit parallels the suffering from success more than one would imagine.

The 21 minutes of crossroads are most rewarding when following the instructions: playing the EP forwards, then backwards to draw whichever conclusions you may from both sides of the coin. The tracklist (as listed) begins with a gunshot before presenting the classic hood underdog story, where this Vince elevates past depression and desperation to a fame that arguably leaves the character worse off than before, once he leaves his neighborhood, homies, and lifestyle for greener pastures. The inverse presents the Vince character already at such precipice, rapidly descending into madness when confronted with the demons of his past and the pain of his present until he presumably takes his own life. The above interpretations are my own, subject to change based on what you believe; we’ll never find the definitive answer, as Vince would want according to his premiere of the film in L.A.:

“We live in a time when people are explaining everything for reasons that I do not understand,” [Vince] recently told Billboard. “They’re all just songs. You make them and people can relate to them how they want.”
The music itself is a consistent, yet notable upgrade from Summertime ‘06 that morphs with the story. Several of the most important moments are spent reeling in silence, with Vince manipulating space to focus on setting the mood through his internal monologue. No I.D. only handled the beat on “Pimp Hand,”  so James Blake(!) is the runaway favorite with the haunting Andre 3000-sampling standout “War Ready” and the frantic, festival-ready “Big Time,” which comes with enough maximalism to compliment the inflated ego of Vince’s character once he’s in the fray. The sonic ebb-and-flow carries its own weight, giving sound to moments of war, of paranoia, of pressure ready to collapse into itself.


From Hell Can Wait onward, Vince Staples’ music continues to grow into a brilliant display of subversion: in the live environment, the beats themselves sound perfect at 2 a.m. raves, midnight dancefloors, the set before a headline artist in a huge arena. The lyrics always stand in stark contrast, taking every opportunity to assassinate easily-exploitable tropes at every corner. The Vince we hear in Prima Donna sounds like a dramatized version of the one we see in this reality, trying his damnedest to avoid the falsehoods and fallacies of people who think nothing of him based on his pigment, his Crip status, or the fans who bang their heads in the stands too rapidly to observe and absorb his truth no matter how cathartic the moshpit may be.

It’s difficult to sift through the truth - there’s plenty, as we’ve come to expect - for what it is, rather than extrapolating past conspiracy. Is the Vince we love truly in all this pain? Is he acting, unable to escape the Crip shit he comes from? Is he a slave to his skin, unable to escape the perception of an American eye? Is this character a suicide note to himself or the fame he’s accrued? Herein lies the challenge to the listener, left to agonize over every striking detail when it all may very well be another story we enjoy being fed to us. Vince’s track record suggests his taking extreme pleasure in showing us what matters by reminding us of just how much means nothing at all. That’s the brilliance of his work, and that’s what makes Prima Donna an Album of the Year contender with only six songs and a gunshot interlude to show for it. There’s so little to take, yet so much to find, and the journey should be enough for us.

Profile Picture of Michael Penn II
Michael Penn II

Michael Penn II (aka CRASHprez) is a rapper and a former VMP staff writer. He's known for his Twitter fingers.

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