[ARTium / Def Jam]
Second album syndrome must really weigh heavy on the minds of many artists who release stellar debuts, but perhaps more so for those in the hip hop world. Young rappers who burst onto the scene with a game-changing opus can find it hard to recreate the magic. Part of the problem may lie with that fact that those first records are often supremely realised songs that draw from the traumatic realities of life on the streets, volcanoes of urban chaos that lay dormant for years until finally allowed to erupt in front of a microphone. Once those tales are told however, there may be little else to reveal and suddenly a broader perspective is required. For some, this adjustment can be a seamless one (To Pimp a Butterfly) but for others it’s an uneasy experiment (Nas’ It Was Written).
Vince Staples’ latest release, Prima Donna, is not an album but it does nonetheless document an artist in transition. 2015’s Summertime ’06 was a starkly brilliant first full length that immersed listeners into a depraved concrete jungle of unpredictable violence, inevitable heartbreak and inescapable addictions of various forms. Along with the excellent EP that preceded it, Hell Can Wait, Staples separated himself from the pack with some moody minimalism and by displaying wisdom well beyond his years. This new extended play lacks the singularly minded focus of either of those works but perhaps that’s the point. It’s made up of Summertime leftovers and some newer ideas the Californian is playing with. Part palate cleanser, part minor directional change, Prima Donna appears to be laying at least some of the groundwork for his sophomore record proper while also reminding us why we have nothing to worry about.
This is an EP that gives us an insight into where the rapper is at during the strange period of limbo between first and second albums. The 23-year-old is still as distrustful as ever and being hailed as one of the most exciting voices in hip hop has only made that sentiment all the more entrenched. The artwork says it all really – a cartoonish, bobble-headed Staples looking as disaffected as ever. If you think he’s going to let this all go to his head, then you don’t know Vince Staples. Once, when asked about whether rappers need to ego to thrive, he shut the question down. “Kanye has ego ‘cause he’s Kanye west; you know who don’t need ego? Chamillionaire.”
On the hook of the title track, the singer looks around and feels compelled to ask himself “Is it real?”. It is a question that resonates throughout the record. The success of Summertime ’06 garnered acclaim and attention from all sides but Staples doesn’t buy it for a second. On the same song, the speaker wonders whether he should give his audience what they want via self-destructive meltdown. “Feelin’ like a pop star, music drive a nigga crazy / Think I’m finna pull a Wavves on the Primavera stage / Or some prima donna shit, finna throw it all away.”
This time around, production duties have been taken over by the nigh-omnipresent James Blake – at this stage it might be easier to name the big name releases of 2016 the Londoner is not involved with than the ones he is. His involvement is clear yet unobtrusive. Primma Donna is not as oppressively sparse as previous works, which is to say, in terms of brightness it’s a mere incremental increase of the dimmer switch. The soundscape is still a cacophonous whirlwind that Staples can exert his aggression through.
The deceptively jaunty ‘Smile’ finds Vince giving himself the same patronising advice that strange men give, unsolicited, to unsuspecting women on the street. “Smile for me”, he is told on the chorus, as if it will make it all better. In the verses, he explains why success is difficult to enjoy. Like so many rappers, he is conflicted by survivor’s guilt and the covetous attitudes he thinks those who he left behind harbour for him. He says he knows who the ‘fraudulent’ are, the ones hoping “It’s right back to the ghetto [he] goes”. In one of the lines of the year he surmises, “I left the street where I’ve grown to chase the yellow brick road / I heard they paved it with gold / I turned around and seen they pissed on it.”
If there is one thing that Vince does have faith in, it’s in his own ability. He may not believe others but he believes in himself. In almost every song here, with a tinge of hyperbole, he compares himself to legendary artists of the past (Leonardo da Vinci, Vincent van Gogh, Edgar Allan Poe). Unlike so many of contemporaries, he only wants to be the best for his own sake, he’s doesn’t need glitzy materialism to act as his trophy. In his own words, “I write the James Joyce / Don’t need the Rolls Royce.”
It’s on the explosive ‘War Ready’ that Vince shows both the strength of his own confidence and the respect he has for his predecessors. As risqué decisions go, opening a song with an Andre 3000 sample is a pretty bold one, but the young pretender more than holds his own here. Just like Andre’s verse, this speaker sets out to prove the spoken word has more power than the smoking gun. When they turned “Africans into ni**ers” they could dehumanise them before hanging them, when you “fuck the sign” on a street corner, you’ll get shot. It’s not just what you say, but also what you don’t say. Vince bemoans the political-minded who “fuck with the rappers” just because of their wealth and popularity and ponders “who the activist and who the devil’s advocate?” It’s an interesting line considering that A$AP Rocky, who makes an appearance on ‘Prima Donna”, got into some hot water after eventually expressing his controversial opinions on the Black Lives Matter movement.
Prima Donna isn’t a massive earth-shattering leap for this still incredibly young artist but it is the minor digression that we didn’t know we needed. It will more than tide you over for a second album that won’t feel so far away anymore. If nothing else, Prima Donna should stand as an interesting time capsule in years to come. This is an exercise that gives Vince Staples to take a breather after being thrown into the spotlight. He looks back, takes it all in and realises that he never gave a fuck about it in the first place.