Music Review: Rapper Vince Staples Longs for Escape in “Prima Donna”

Prima Donna is a rare thing: a conceptual EP that works.


By Joe Daley

His adolescence spent in the gang culture of Long Beach, California, Vince Staples is no stranger to hard times and the chaos of violence. On his latest EP, Prima Donna, Staples tries to resolve the disruptive conflicts raging within himself, the result of his struggle to reconcile success and despair, fantasy and reality.

Prima Donna is a gripping experiment in form. Over the course of its twenty-one minutes, the EP progresses backwards chronologically, moving from Staples’ apparent suicide (in the gloomy, exhausted acapella intro “Let It Shine”) to the rapper’s grappling with various forms of misery as he searches for a fragile contentment.

Staples tries, but fails, to find solace in the satisfactions of fame. On “Big Time,” he celebrates his rise to stardom as well as his street authenticity, lacing braggadocio about money and women with lethal threats aimed at anonymous record label executives and other rappers.

The bulk of Prima Donna is spent exploring the ways in which these superficially appealing fantasies fall apart. On “Pimp Hand,” Staples takes aim at veteran rappers and chic attention seekers alike, once again calling on his street rep to back him up. On “Prima Donna,” Staples is fed up with all of the tough talk (including his own); instead, he tries to amuse himself with the joys of the high life. On “Loco,” Staples dismisses the materialistic wiles he just embraced, seeming to fall back in love with the violence that made him. Throughout this psychological tug-of-war there are explicit references to suicide. The threat adds a palpable suspense to the battle — Staples is struggling to escape his own self-destructive urges, trying to outrun his own gun as he attempts to find happiness.

The see-sawing leaves Staples in a bitter, sometimes indifferent, mental space. He is dissatisfied with his present life as a famous rapper as well as his past as a hometown gangbanger. With each stab at reconciling the extremes (outlaw versus celebrity) he ends up drifting further away from either identity, a trip into a ‘no-man’s-land’ he evokes in “Smile,” which features an incendiary, desperate instrumental by John Hill and DJ Dahi.

This ennui brings us back to “War Ready,” a powerful track that immediately follows the intro. It is an eerie, thumping James Blake-produced cut that features a prominent Outkast sample. In the song, Staples abandons the wealth/poverty dichotomy in which he finds himself trapped on the rest of the EP. Here the listener is given an unsettling view of the hopelessness of African-American life, featuring lines such as “Heaven, Hell, free or jail, same shit / County jail bus, slave ship, same shit / A wise man once said that a black man better off dead.” If “Let It Shine” suggests Staples’ suicide, “War Ready” is the agonizing note left behind.

Prima Donna is a rare thing: a conceptual EP that works, In six tight songs and an intro, Staples deftly dramatizes a narrative of gradual spiritual and mental decay, a feat that could only be pulled off by one of the most compelling artists in hip-hop today.

Joe Daley is a senior at the University of Massachusetts Boston. He is an English major focusing on alternative literature.

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