Vince Staples’ macabre mixtape
Brian Boylen | Tuesday, September 6, 2016
From the very first moment of his latest release “Prima Donna,” Vince Staples lets listeners know they are not in for a typical lighthearted rap project. The EP opens with “Let it Shine,” a song solely consisting of Staples singing the gospel children’s song “This Little Light of Mine.” The recording is grainy and lo-fi — Staples’ slow, almost bored delivery of the lyrics is interrupted only by the sound of a sole gunshot that ends the opener and kicks off the EP in full.
Listeners are thrown immediately into the fast paced “War Ready,” produced by English musician James Blake. Blake is a well-respected producer in the world of electronic music, but this is his first major foray into the world of hip-hop beats. Blake has fun with it and brings a fresh style of production to the track. The song kicks off with an aggressive sample from “ATliens” by OutKast laid out over a jittery beat before Staples finally enters the fight with the immensely catchy hook, “Born ready, war ready … war ready, your boys lost already.”
High quality, envelope-pushing production, courtesy of Blake, DJ Dahi and No I.D., elevates the album. The third track off the EP, “Smile,” has upbeat, almost funky production. DJ Dahi’s repeating guitar chords made me feel as if I was listening to rock, not hip-hop. The uplifting beat contrasts with Staples’ bars, filled with dark lines such as “I feel my life is in danger every night when I lay / So could you do me a favor, smile for me?” He seems to be trying to save others from the same fate that he has suffered — losing hope. Staples appears unable to smile himself. He repeats “Sometimes I feel like giving up” 16 times on the spoken word outro to “Smile.”
Staples enjoyed great commercial and critical success with his 2015 release “Summertime ‘06,” but it seems his jaded outlook on life remains unchanged by the fame and money. If anything, “Prima Donna” paints a much clearer picture of the inner workings of Staples’ troubled mind. Staples didn’t shy away from shining a light on the darker aspects of gang life on “Summertime ‘06,” but “Prima Donna” gives us an even deeper view into his own psyche. The cover art reflects the personal nature of this project — a picture of a bored Staples with an enlarged head, gazing wistfully towards the camera. By blowing up his head to unreal proportions, Staples demonstrates to the listener that this record is really all about him. It is a journey into his mind — and all of the baggage that it contains.
Despite the macabre nature of the EP, it is still a very enjoyable listen. One of the more fun tracks is “Loco,” one of two tracks featuring a guest. The beat changes often as the bass and other instruments pop in and out of the tune, and there is a certain chemistry between Kilo Kish and Staples as they play off each other’s lines. A$AP Rocky also makes a guest appearance, this time on the title track. Oddly enough, A$AP Rocky doesn’t contribute an actual verse to the song, but rather provides some backing vocals that keep the song moving. This slightly disappointed me — I was excited to hear Rocky rap over the fantastic production of the EP. Despite my woe at what could have been, the song is still fantastic and is one of the best tracks off this release.
Sophomore albums always present a challenge, and Staples certainly had a lot to live up to after the fantastic “Summertime ‘06.” Staples has created a worthy successor in “Prima Donna.” The production is fantastic, his rapping is consistently smooth and his ability to convey a powerful message through his words remains as strong as ever. All these factors create a cohesive, exceptional product. It may be short, but “Prima Donna” packs a mighty punch.
Songs – Loco, Prima Donna, Smile
Related artists – Joey Bada$$, Earl Sweatshirt