The opening scene of the 10-minute short film that accompanies Vince Staples’s Prima Donna features the rapper on the set of a music video, surrounded by twerking women. He looks disinterested and morose, suggesting he’s tired of the clichés that plague contemporary hip-hop. The EP itself is set up as a binary opposition to last year’s Summertime ’06, juxtaposing the confessional autobiography of that album with a narrative that’s more abstract. Even as the varying and experimental production choices shift radically, Staples’s lyrics remain focused on the gangbanging, violence, and poverty of his oppressive youth. Fame has changed nothing for him; it’s just blurred the boundaries between his past and present, and left him in an unwanted position of responsibility.
Prima Donna’s standout title track encapsulates Staples’s appeal as a lyricist—and the appeal of the EP as a whole. He meanders through myriad topics, exploring the impact of wealth, racism, and the past on his mentality. When Staples explains, “All the homies say I’m different, police say I raise suspicion/Buy a million-dollar home and blow my dome to paint the kitchen,” it sums up his dilemma: Even with fame, money, and notoriety, he’s still experiencing the same problems as before.
This bar in particular illustrates Staples’s ability to tie complicated, multi-layered issues up in accessible language. Despite the differences in African-Americans’ economics, personalities, and appearances, the powers that be still view the black community as a monolith. The hook is a simple repletion of “Is it real?,” but the vocal modulation, along with Staples’s detached vocals, leaves an impression that he has faded from reality. He sounds half-baked and dreamy, uncertain whether his current status as a rising rap star is a dream or nightmare.
In many ways, Staples is a translator; he streamlines complex issues while maintaining their impact. His choice of flow, too, is meticulous. He sounds nonchalant when describing how he’s “fed up of the young dyin’,” or he tonally shifts his flow in the style of Danny Brown to diversify the EP’s sonic palette on tracks like “Big Time.”
Staples follows a doctrine of unrelenting creative individuality. Fame hasn’t made him averse to risk-taking, nor has it changed the “weird” boy from Long Beach; it’s just made him more aware of the cultural fabric he inhabits. Songs like “Smile” indicate that he’s changed, that money isn’t his “motive no mo’.”
Prima Donna is Staples becoming acutely aware of his role as a black artist in America. On the opening track, “Let It Shine,” his crackled vocals are embossed against a background of silence: He sounds vulnerable, insecure in his situation, but more importantly, he sounds lonely. The gunshot that echoes at the end of the track silences him like gunshots have many people in his life. Despite the positivity of the lyrics, they can’t help him in an environment marked by silence. It’s a sound Staples is familiar with, representing a series of events that will echo throughout his lyrics until he drops the pen.