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Vince Staples Turns Even More Introspective On Prima Donna

The Long Beach rapper’s latest EP is a concise, focused work

Forty-two seconds into Vince Staples' new EP, a gunshot rings out. He's midway through the gospel standard "This Little Light of Mine" when he's ripped from the frame and forced into the next track. Almost before you've had time to register that the same rapper who once memorably declared, "When it's judgment time, I doubt that God can look me in my eyes / 'Fore He send me down to Hell, cause I'mma ask a nigga why” is meekly singing a children’s hymn, the moment is cut short. There's no time to soak in minor details: Another life has been lost.

The six proper tracks on Prima Donna center less on loud flashes than on the moments of near-silence that follow. Staples spends the EP paddling through the familiar waters of Southern California gang culture and the larger struggle of striving for anything, much less greatness, while black in America. Stark realism is the 23-year-old Long Beach rapper's preferred approach to both topics: He refuses to glamorize the stories he tells or to inject them with escapist thrills. Staples’s eye for details consistently throws up warnings for those who only experience this world through semi-fictionalized music. "War Ready," the song after that opening gunshot, features a staccato vocal sample from Outkast's 1996 "ATLiens," but the track holds none of that duo's fantastical energy; instead, over a militaristic march produced by James Blake, Staples raps about how "guns get to bustin' like soda in a freezer" in an authoritative tone that matches the stomp underneath his voice.

The same bluntness carries the album's closer, "Big Time," where he chastises rappers over the fake lifestyles they purport to live — "I ain't paying homage to nobody with no bodies" — which he contrasts with the day-to-day reality he knows from his career as a musician: "Just played me a show, they paid 80k / I put it away for a rainy day / You never know when you gon’ catch a case." Staples knows better than to trade in a quick payout for material goods because there's no telling what the next day might bring. There's no bigger swimming pool to buy in Staples's mind, no luxurious coat to drag on the floor. That underlying attitude gives his boasts and insights an edge of verisimilitude, so it never feels like he's simply shadow-boxing with gangsta-rap tropes.

Summertime '06, Staples's 2015 major-label debut, had a tight narrative throughline focusing on his transition out of youth, but with 20 tracks, the double album took on a sprawl that was at odds with Staples’s own exacting standards. That's not an issue on the concise Prima Donna, where he keeps his vision under strict control, with not a single bar wasted. The three tracks at the EP’s center — “Smile,” “Loco,” and “Prima Donna” — all share minimalist production from DJ Dahi, along with final-minute breaks where the beats melt away, leaving Staples alone with the mic. The most powerful of these moments is on “Smile,” where he rattles off:

Don't say you feel my pain

Cause I don't even feel myself

Blood rushing to my brain

Sometimes I wanna kill myself

Sometimes I feel like giving up

Sometimes I feel like giving up

Sometimes I feel like giving up

The motion of the ocean's waves baptize me and capsize my frame

Salt water inside my wounds

Still don't know who to blame

These words contrast sharply with Staples at his most outspoken, as on “War Ready” earlier on the EP, where he raps “Learned the power of words when we was younger / Turned the African into a nigga then they hunt ya.” As the EP draws to a close, we hear a more intimate side of the rapper that makes it impossible to ignore the doubts and fears that his technical proficiency might mask elsewhere. These are the quieter moments when Staples turns his judgemental mirror from the world onto himself; the self-doubt underneath the seams of his more braggadocious lines spills out as all of his misdeeds are laid at his own feet, in skeletal recordings that give a sense of eavesdropping on his thoughts.

That gunshot on the EP's intro is not a new tactic for Staples: Summertime '06 abruptly ends mid-verse with a single shot during the otherwise jovial closing track, “'06.” Both times, the effect is jarring. A sudden whiplash occurs, where one quickly repeats the track to be sure a detail wasn't missed, but each time reveals no clue to be found. Staples has spoken in many interviews about the tragic realities of death in his life, both on-record and off. The gunshots in his music cut him off midthought, forcing listeners to take a moment, breathe, and enter the state of mind he's created even more fully.