“Is it real?”: Revisiting Vince Staples’ ‘Prima Donna’

After reviewing Staples’ recent (and very good) FM! a few weeks ago, it seemed appropriate for me to go back in time just a little bit and explore an EP I had left aside for way too long. Listening to FM!, I had come to the conclusion that Staples’ music was a call for us to truly listen to what he was saying, no matter how fun the beats sounded and how easy it was to dance along. And yet, I wrote this review as if that didn’t concern me, as if I had been one of the careful listeners all along. As a music reviewer (even a super amateur one), it’s common to pretend that you’ve listened to every album and every song of every month of every year so your writing can have a sense of credibility; but for me, this couldn’t be any more false. As far as Staples went, I had in fact mostly glossed over one of his most vital releases: his 2016 EP Prima Donna, only being vaguely aware of the EP because of the songs that I occasionally heard on my Spotify Daily Mixes, but never actually taking the time to listen to it from beginning to end. Recently realizing that Prima Donna clocked in at only 21 minutes, I had no more excuses to keep avoiding it. It was time for me to dive head first — and am I glad I did.

Prima Donna doesn’t quite open with a bang, but it still doesn’t take long before the first gunshot resonates in our eardrums. Staples draws us in with a downbeat, sinister rendition of the classic gospel song ‘This Little Light of Mine’, soberly titled 'Let it Shine’. The original song is an optimistic Biblical song written for children, but although no lyrics are changed, Staples’ take is everything but light-hearted. His voice is distant, emotionless, the lines repeated as if in a haze, like the words he’s singing can’t reach him anymore. These almost spoken interludes are a recurrent motif on the album: always repetitive, disembodied, and utterly hopeless. ‘Sometimes I feel like giving up’ repeats Staples over ten times in ‘Smile’, making it easy to get infected by his own despair. Later on, in the song’s title track, Staples tells us in the same mind-numbing, eerily-spoken fashion that he wants to live forever — but the clear detonation we heard only a couple of tracks ago lets us know that his dream won’t last for long.

These interludes are far from the only dark or disquieting parts of the album: they’re just the ones that are the most upfront about it, moments of vulnerability from a man that resembles Staples just a little too much. The EP follows this character from his rise to fame all the way to his inevitable fall, but makes the clever choice of doing so in a reverse chronological order. We start with the hardest part — the gunshot lets us know that no matter what we will hear in the following tracks, the outcome has already been decided. What matters now for us listeners is not to find out what will happen next, but how it all came to this.

We start our descent with ‘War Ready’, a falsely euphoric opening track. Staples tells us that he was ‘born ready’, deceptively associating the song with his birth when it is truly the last step before his suicide. The darkness is hiding well enough underneath the imaginative beat built out of an André 3000 sample, but once we hear ‘Need a breather from the tripping/Either that or my brains to the ceiling’ shortly followed by the chilling ‘A wise man once said that a black man better off dead’, we are thrown back into the dark context of the introduction. The context of the story changes everything for what would have otherwise been a well-produced song exploring issues of race and fame. He’s war ready, but much of the war has already been fought — and we still have yet to find out what it is that made him lose.

The next track, ‘Smile’, sees the EP at its bleakest point lyrically and its most unexpected musically. The production dramatically changes from what the rapper has gotten us used to, with riffs and distorted sounds replacing the usual straightforwardness of Staples’ sound. The song feels like it carries so much weight that we might get crushed at any moment, while still retaining that barely concealed pessimistic tone. ‘Smile’ feels like a cry for help and captures a much different state of mind than ‘War Ready’. Where the preceding song felt chaotic, here we have a glimpse into the last bits of cohesiveness in the rapper’s mind — and sure, it makes more sense, but it’s not pretty. It is in this track that we begin to see the themes that characterize the entire journey of the character. ‘I know that money come and go so motive not my motive no more / I made enough to know I’ll never make enough for my soul’: fame has made yet another victim, and despite his attempts to make us save him, we’re too powerless to do anything.

Before the acceptance came the questioning in the form of ‘Loco’, a welcome collaboration with (criminally underrated) rapper Kilo Kish. Her almost robotic voice takes on the role of Staples’ internal conscience as his struggles get harder and harder to fight against. Her voice is a perfect fit against the more lowkey instrumental background. The two are frequent collaborators and once again, their chemistry gets confirmed as Kish talks Staples through his mental breakdown. The EP’s title track ‘Prima Donna’ already gave hints towards the cracks opening in the rapper’s mind. While his tone is more playful than before, his loss of a firm grip on reality is just as clear to the careful listener. The hints that are disseminated through the EP makes it not only a great musical experience, but also a superb narrative one.

Finally, the two final tracks see Staples in the heights of his fame. The songs seem only loosely related to the struggles we have heard him go through, which makes his descent into madness all the more gripping once we realize how fast it all went down. In ‘Pimp Hand’, Staples rebels against the old rappers who want to tell the new generation how to do things, while in ‘Big Time’, he revels in his newfound celebrity. Of course, nothing is ever completely black or white with Staples, and indeed an ironic tone can be heard through his seeming glorification of gang culture, a recurrent theme in all of his albums. As we’re finally tempted to move along to the beat again and forget about all the upsetting issues we had to deal with in the past twenty minutes, we are reminded yet again of the darkness that plagues the entire EP. After thirty seconds of unnerving silence, we hear the faint sounds of rain followed by Kish’s voice one last time: ‘Hello ? Hello ? Is anybody there ?’. These words are heartbreaking precisely because we know that there isn’t. What’s left of Staples’ mind is bound to disappear — and even though we now know why his life reached this tragic conclusion, it does nothing in making us feel less powerless.

The EP was released alongside a ten minute short film that tells the story of Prima Donna in its chronological order, giving us two completely different experiences. Both of these are valuable, but the order that the EP offers makes us truly work to get the bottom of the problem that is so abruptly presented to us. That is not to say that the EP doesn’t have value if it is played in reverse: in fact, many fans and critics seem to have found a new meaning when listening to the album in this unconventional way. Likewise, Prima Donna also shares a characteristic with most great concept albums: all of the tracks perfectly stand on their own. Of course, they do lose something by being isolated from any kind of narrative context, but a strong production and Staples’ status as a sharp lyricist manages to make each track solid enough to be listened to in isolation. Since the EP already establishes a sense of cohesiveness through its story, Staples allows himself to dabble into multiple styles and genres, and it pays off. This is both a strong EP and a collection of strong individual songs, which makes Prima Donna well worth giving your time to. Questions of fame, race, identity and the ways these intersect will keep haunting the rapper in his releases after the metaphorical gunshot; however, it seemed that concentrating them so intensely did have some sort of cathartic effect for him — and after repeated listenings, it is a relief to realize that it does slightly carry onto us. What used to be hopeless slowly turns into freedom, perhaps the biggest tour de force in what turned out to be an already outstanding release.

probably napping

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