We gave it a B+
With high-profile, high-quality releases from Kendrick Lamar, A$AP Rocky, and Drake, 2015 was a banner year for hip-hop. But Vince Staples, the rising 23-year-old MC from Long Beach, Calif., proved he could hold his own among the heavyweights with his ambitious double album, Summertime ’06. On his brief new EP, Prima Donna, Staples continues to refine his musical aesthetic, while honing his already-sharp lyricism.
Staples makes harsh music — the sonic equivalent of the heat waves that rise from asphalt on a hundred-degree day. For Prima Donna, Staples teamed up with producers No I.D. and DJ Dahi, who worked on Summertime standouts including “Lift Me Up” and “Jump off the Roof,” for another collection of pulverizing beats. Anxiety-inducing synths ripple through the Dahi-produced “Loco,” and No I.D. pairs woozy vocal tricks with lurching drums for a singularly disorienting effect on the Rocky-featuring title track. And Staples’ newest collaborator, electro-soul artist James Blake, successfully ventures into uncharted waters with his skittering instrumentals for “War Ready” and “Big Time.”
But the beats on Prima Donna merely underscore Staples’ lyrics. “Heaven, Hell, free or jail, same s— / county jail bus, slave ship, same s—,” Staples rhymes on “War Ready,” and on “Pimp Hand” he interrogates the justice system: “N—as battles with judge like the gavel got a grudge.” Elsewhere, he grapples with his newfound fame and its consequences with sometimes disturbing conclusions. On “Smile,” Staples reflects on leaving his community to chase fame, and contemplates suicide as a solution. That theme crops up again on “Loco,” when Staples illustrates a scene with a gun at a Marriott “having Kurt Cobain dreams.”
Part of Summertime‘s allure was its immersive scope, which, at 21 minutes, Prima Donna by nature can’t touch. And given its lyrical and musical density, the EP’s short runtime feels particularly abrupt. Nevertheless, it’s an accomplished collection from one of rap’s most promising young talents.