All of the greatest rappers of our generation have one thing in common—they understand that great art depends on progression. Good rappers have distinct production that caters to the nuances of their technically-skilled flows and lyrics. But great rappers are always experimenting with their sound, improving their rapping ability, and leaving their comfort zones. Think about how different the excellent singles off of Danny Brown’s upcoming album, Atrocity Exhibition, sound compared to Old and even XXX. Think about the risk Kendrick Lamar took going from good kid, m.A.A.d city to To Pimp a Butterfly. Vince Staples is progressing rap music from project to project, as he shifts away from the tales of street depravity on Hell Can Wait and nostalgic exploration of love and fear on Summertime ’06, to examine the internal pressures of fame on Prima Donna.
Anyone familiar with Staples’ previous work should know right away that the best way to describe Staples making an EP about being a prima donna is ironic. The back end of Prima Donna, as well as Staples’ big-headed EP cover, both give a satirical look at the typical contemporary rap diva devoid of self-awareness. But for the most part, Prima Donna is the cynical story of a rapper’s descent from glory to suicide, told in reverse order. Yes, there are the structural and thematic similarities to Undun, but Staples chooses a character that is more tortured by his narcissism than his environment. Even though the dark side of fame has been chronicled in stories for as long as stories can be remembered, that doesn’t take away from Staples’ fascinating perception on how being rich and famous doesn’t equate to being happy.
Prima Donna’s sequencing may come across as more contrived than clever, but although I’d prefer the EP to be told in chronological order, once “Let it Shine” ends, it doesn’t really matter. “War Ready,” the first real song off of the EP, has some of Staples’ most incredible lyrics to date. (“Life give you lemons, n***a hang from a tree”) is a chilling and thought-provoking twist on the more upbeat proverbial phrase it’s tearing down. (“Who the activist and who the devil’s advocate? / Or do it matter? Shit”) are maybe two of the most poignant, reflective, and critical lines I’ve heard about society in recent time.
“War Ready” is a revelatory song in terms of lyrical content, but also an epiphany for Staples’ prima donna character. This song signifies the moment that the prima donna comes to terms with the world being a dark place that will never get lighter. Not to say that “War Ready” is the best song on the EP, but I think it is the most important song on the EP, and the definitive moment for when the prima donna thinks outside of himself. Ending the EP with “War Ready” feels like a bigger payoff is involved, even if it’s small, considering that a twenty-one minute EP probably isn’t enough time for this concept anyway. For these reasons, I enjoy playing the EP backwards.
My favorite song on Prima Donna might actually be “Big Time,” which coincidentally is the first song from Prima Donna that appears in Staples’ accompanying short film named after the EP. James Blake, who also produced the cold, twinkling beat for “War Ready,” is bound to start getting more calls from rappers asking for beats. “Big Time” sounds like an evil version of a beat EL-P would make for a Run the Jewels album. Staples comes through with the most animated flows I’ve ever heard from him, especially when he bodies his second verse. The song is so over-the-top braggadocios that it reminds me of “Backseat Freestyle.”
There isn’t really a bad track between “War Ready” and “Big Time.” The production throughout this project remains potent and unnerving. “Smile” is led by a guitar-driven instrumental that is the closest Staples has ever gotten to making a pop rap song, but of course it is also the most subversive song on the entire project. “Prima Donna” starts as a banging, jittery instrumental with a creepy, faint looping sample of seagulls squawking in the background, and finishes with an anxious, woozy breakdown with a haunting, psychedelic A$AP Rocky feature attached.
Although the wild and inventive production from the likes of Blake and DJ Dahi deserve a lot of credit, Staples does more than enough to hold his own on the songwriting front. He still isn’t the most imaginative rapper at writing hooks, but Staples is as sharp as ever on his verses. On “Loco,” Staples flashes his wit, (“She love the hip hop and love my slick talk / Give head, then begged the boy to Crip Walk”) and then later makes the literary claims, such as (“I write the James Joyce”) and that he is (“Gangsta gone Gatsby”).
Speaking of literary references in Prima Donna, Staples also mentions Leonardo da Vinci, Edgar Allan Poe, and the artist Vincent van Gogh. All of these brilliant, controversial writers and artists shaped the way art and writing are viewed and interpreted today. Staples was purposely making grandiose comparisons to himself through these different artists to stay in-character, but the absurd part about these comparisons are that they aren’t too far off. Whether Staples asked for it or not, he is a voice at the forefront of one of the most influential mediums of art today. Prima Donna is about struggling to cope with the power and responsibilities of being someone that so many people are listening to.
It’s arguable that no one has had as solid a discography since 2014 as Staples has even before Prima Donna dropped this year. Now with another impressive entry to his catalog, Staples has solidified himself as not only a great rapper, but an elite one.