Check out this lesson I just learned the hard way: Almost every Vince Staples outing—regardless of length, distribution, or cover art—must be treated with an almost universal amount of caution. This was as true with 2014’s Hell Can Wait, Staples’ heavy-hitting major-label debut, as it was with Summertime ‘06, his groundbreaking inaugural LP that dropped last year. For reasons that span miles in every direction, there’s almost nothing about Staples craft that is light, airy or even remotely relatable to a mass audience. There’s depth—political or otherwise—to nearly everything that comes out of his mouth. But this lesson—notwithstanding how true it may be—didn’t truly sink in for me until I listened to the first track off Prima Donna, Staples’ newest and most gripping EP. “Let It Shine” starts like many other album openers do: Ambient clicks and hums signal a cassette tape beginning its rotation as Staples commences a half-mumble/half-croon to the words of the vacation bible school classic. “This little light of mine,” he barely utters, as though he’s been awake for three minutes. “I’m gonna let it shine.” Then, with absolutely zero warning, loud and immediate pistol fire interrupts the final syllable of the verse. And I’m not using the words “loud and immediate,” all willy-nilly. This made me jump out of my seat when I first heard it.
This wasn’t unintentional. Staples knows a thing or two about presentation. He understands the common denominator between an errant gunshot and a warped “ATLiens” sample, so he employs it as the segue between tracks one and two. He does this because he’s one of the smartest rappers in the game right now, and Prima Donna comes up aces as just one more reason to believe it.
Perhaps what’s most telling about Prima Donna is the amount of ground Staples covers despite its EP designation. Hell Can Wait made similar moves, but bear in mind: That was an opening salvo to a brilliance we had yet to truly experience, let alone understand. For that reason, it had completely different motives. Prima Donna, free from the obligation of proving anything to anyone, roams openly across landscapes we had yet to attach to Staples’ catalog. “War Ready”, an infectious call-to-arms featuring the aforementioned 3 Stacks sample, delivers as much in the way of sonic saturation as it does in the way of political context. “Who the activist and who the devil’s advocate?” Staples posits. “And do it matter? Shit, / They only fuckin’ with the rapper if the rapper rich.” This kind of emotional discourse rarely makes for anything less than a hip-hop think piece, but the other unteachable talent at Staples’ disposal is his ability to turn phrases—no matter their content—into repeatable anthems. The payout for a gift like this is inconceivable, and Staples may be the best in the industry at it.
Other tracks—most notably, “Loco”, featuring Kilo Kish (again) dropping the perfectly syrupy counterbalance to Staples’ high-voltage bars (again), and title track “Prima Donna”, featuring ASAP Rocky at his subtlest—tend to draw more attention to Staples’ penchant for bouncy, rhythmic lyricism. EP closer “Big Time” illustrates a cool juxtaposition of quick-fire syncopation against languid rhyme structures, while “Pimp Hand” capitalizes on guttural bass lines, cloud-like samples and near-perfect staccato.
That, in a nutshell, is the brilliance of Vince Staples. Dude’s got unlimited weapons in his arsenal, and every single outing seems to showcase another thing or two we didn’t know he was capable of before. Prima Donna may not stand up to the unfettered brilliance of Summertime ‘06, but it was never supposed to. Instead, it tells us just a bit about Staples’ scope as an artist, which is to say: We have no clue what this guy’s capable of. B PLUS