PRIMA DONNA by Vince Staples
Genre: Conscious Hip Hop, Hardcore Hip Hop
Favorite Tracks: “Loco (featuring Kilo Kish),” “Pimp Hand”
The rise to relevancy that Vince Staples has experienced is one of the more endearing recent examples of a good, old-fashioned success story. The 23-year-old rapper from Long Beach got an early relevancy boost from the mercurial blog darlings of yesteryear, Odd Future, with standout verses on solo tapes from Earl Sweatshirt and Mike G back when we were still pretending that they would be new Wu-Tang. Eschewing the inflammatory, juvenile, and meme-ready tactics of his West Coast peers, Staples still managed to secure a high-profile collaborative mixtape with Mac Miller off of talent alone, before firmly anchoring his place in the music world’s consciousness with what I still consider to be the highlight of his career, HELL CAN WAIT. Once NPR and Jesse Thorn started sniffing him out, any hope of staying in the underground went out the window, and Staples’ debut full-length, SUMMERTIME ‘06, ended up on many year-end lists. Well, not mine, as I found SUMMERTIME ‘06 to be generic, unwilling to take any major risks, and ultimately forgettable. On his follow-up EP, PRIMA DONNA, Staples has addressed any concerns about a willingness to take a risk, turning in a wholly entertaining hip hop release in the process.
PRIMA DONNA’s biggest credit is the fact that its sound proves a unique challenge to pin down, and makes a strong case for the dissolution of genre descriptors based on geographical location. While only YG and his posse seem to be dedicated to keeping the old school, G-Funk-derived sound alive, the new school of those hailing from greater Los Angeles area has taken on a stoned, somewhat bohemian quality that has made it harder and harder to find similar artists within the “West Coast Hip Hop” genre. PRIMA DONNA aligns to neither of these interpretations of the West Coast sound, and in the process, establishes itself as one of the more sonically innovative releases of the year. With production mostly handled by Staples regular DJ Dahi (although electronic musician James Blake and hip hop regular No I.D. lend their names to tracks as well), it becomes even more impressive how many different styles manage to manifest themselves successfully.
“Smile” opens up with a roaring distorted guitar ripped right off of a Cage the Elephant or Black Keys record, devolving into whirling hisses of feedback and distortion and ending in an elongated, spoken word outro. “Loco” introduces a piercing, tension-riddled alarm pulse that develops into a chilly call-and-response between Staples and Kilo Kish that brings to mind Dev and the Cataracs as much as it shows Staples as a rapper willing to open up about mental illness and depression. “Pimp Hand” warps a tortured male yelp into an integral part of a fuzzy, understated bass wobble that will get an entire room on the dance floor instantly. Even more importantly, “Pimp Hand” introduces a larger conflict involving old heads who refuse to allow hip hop to grow and change with the times. While Vince Staples might not be as willfully unorthodox as Lil Yachty or as aesthetically flagrant as Young Thug, PRIMA DONNA proves that he’s still introducing a valuable amount of new sounds and attitudes into the game, mostly sidestepping misogyny, only occasionally dabbling in gangbanging, and regularly discussing mental health issues that are traditionally uncomfortable to discuss.
However, in Staples’s radio dialing of styles and influences, he occasionally toes the line between homage and distasteful copying. I find the most egregious example of this to be on “War Ready,” where a sizable portion of an Andre 3000 verse is made use of before roughly transitioning into Staples’s actual verse. Considering how incongruous the stylistic change is (the beat itself changes as well), this comes off as a strange and desperate desire to associate himself with hip hop greats. Some may find lengthy verse samples an obvious criticism, but everyone has to get a little rankled upon listening to “Big Time,” which is heavily reminiscent of Kendrick Lamar’s “Backseat Freestyle.” (The opening is in the exact same flow as “Backseat Freestyle”’s “Damn I got bitches” segment, with Vince even opening up with “Man I love my bitches.”)
My usual complaint about EPs is that they lack cohesion, but while PRIMA DONNA is a grab bag from a production standpoint, there is a regular thematic motif of Staples struggling with thoughts of alienation and suicide, and a more literal motif of Staples ending tracks by singing morosely to himself. This would grow old over the course of a full-length, but an economical release like this manages to end just as the schtick begins to wear thin. For those disenchanted with how pedestrian SUMMERTIME ‘06 felt, PRIMA DONNA proves that, while Bruce Springsteen references might be a bit contrived, Vince Staples is still one of the most important voices discussing the trials and tribulations of the realities facing the South Bay gang-affiliated.