Album Review: Vince Staples - Prima Donna

Album Reviews
Gerrit Feenstra

While he's been building steam for quite some time now, California rapper Vince Staples hit most people's radar hard with last year's excellent double LP studio debut, Summertime '06. Here, Vince showcased far more than bloodthirsty hooks and ravaging technique - he also displayed a keen awareness of the world around him, all starting from a very young age. Vince's introspection and his observance have always played into his favor, making him first and foremost an engaging character on the rap spectrum, but also a welcome contributor to many other realms of conversation that most other rappers can't touch on. For such a young guy, this kind of praise can be a double-edged sword. As he explained in Zane Lowe interview ahead of the drop for new EP Prima Donna, a lot of his interviews have barely touched on his music, where journalists are looking to him as a conversationalist for their own benefit rather than his. "They want that line that's going to get them a 10 dollar raise", Vince remarked with absolutely zero remorse. And it's true! In the post-Internet meta-narrative that our consumption of music entertainment has become, the vast majority of buzz around Vince Staples fails to recognize exactly what got him here: the fact that he does his day job really, really well. Vince puts out great records and he puts on even better shows - everything else he offers us is icing on the cake. It's against this complex and oftentimes frustrating backdrop that Vince now gives us his latest offering, Prima Donna. The EP and Nabil-directed short film release gives us a brief and brutal before and after of what fame and pop culture integration has done to the kid who grew up on Poppy Street. Vince has plenty of fire left to spit, and with every release, it seems like the intensity only seems to dial up, but he has a lot to think about along the way.

The first of the Prima Donna recordings happened not even a month after the release of Summertime '06 - clearly, Vince is not one to let the dust settle whatsoever. Excluding the voice memo intro of "Let It Shine", four of the six tracks here are produced by Vince's Summertime team of No I.D. and DJ Dahi. Popping with just as much energy as they brought to the full length, No I.D. and Dahi continue to as a perfect pairing to Vince's insatiable hunger. But joining their ranks for the other two is a first time Vince collaborator - one James Blake. After hearing his brutal remix of Drake's "Come Thru" as well as the Chance the Rapper collaboration redux of "Life Round Here", there's a good chance that some Blake fans found The Colour in Anything's hip-hop offerings to be lacking. Thankfully, he and Vince kick off Prima Donna with maybe its best song, "War Ready". Vince claims in his Zane Lowe interview that he wrote this song three years ago, which would pre-date the release of Hell Can Wait (given his output since then, that feels like a long time ago, somehow). But it's the kind of Vince track that exists out of time, blasting at full force over top of an excellent sample of OutKast classic "ATLiens". "Smile" and "Pimp Hand" join "War Ready" in this category of day 1 furious Vince magic. But he doesn't stay in this territory for long.

Following her multiple collaborations with Vince on Summertime '06, Kilo Kish jumps on "Loco". Her way too slept on Reflections in Real Time was one of the most aptly named records of 2016, detailing the post-humanism that the Internet has brought upon our identities between present and past. Thus, she makes a great partner in crime here for Vince to talk about fame, paranoia, and loss of identity. Later, DJ Dahi produces the EP's other big standout in the form of the title track. A$AP Rocky joins up and the two go back and forth effortlessly detailing the pitfalls of the business. Much like the very best of Vince's discography, it's powerful realism you can dance to, and Rocky rises to the occasion here as well.

Summertime '06 ended with a cliffhanger worthy of an X-Files season finale. After the narrator gives us the to be continued of "Next time on Poppy Street", Vince goes in on "'06", one of the hardest tracks on the whole album, that unfortunately lasts forty seconds before sputtering to radio static. We didn't get to hear the full version of "'06" until this year, when Vince dropped it as part of the Adult Swim Singles Series, but the intention on the LP was clear: this may be the beginning, but there's a long way left to go. On Prima Donna, as the massive closer "Big Time" fades (James Blake produces with a delicious nod to Eskibeat), another "Next time on Poppy Street" keeps us on the hook. The sound of rain is followed by a small voice: "Hello? Is anybody there?". While the voice is evidently held by someone intended to be much younger than Vince, it's almost as if we are, for a moment, taken back to that summer of '06 where 12 year-old Vince saw his life transformed forever. With emerging new horizons, Vince may seem to take all the bumps in stride thanks to a truly spectacular sense of humor. But the temptation of fame and glory is always looming on the horizon, and like the cover art shows, Vince is fighting NBA Jam levels of big-headedness. It's a rough battle, especially when the competition seems so often rewarded for their own pompous behavior. But Vince can see the light at the end of the tunnel. After remarking plenty about the low key approach to the EP to Zane Lowe, he finishes with, "People always speak about what you're supposed to do next and making the best music... I don't really think any of that matters... I think you make what you're supposed to make at that current time and if it's good, it's good". Focused and headstrong, Vince is headed for greatness simply because he refuses to not be himself, and that's a credit that no one deserves a check for but him.

Prima Donna is out now. Grab it on Vince's website on limited edition, signed vinyl. Vince was here not too long ago, but check his Facebook for emerging dates.

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