2016 has featured two rap projects that begin with a reference to the gospel staple “This Little Light of Mine.” On Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo the song was quoted by Chance the Rapper, setting the mood for a wayward album about using faith to reckon with temptation. On Vince Staples’ Prima Donna, the song is quoted as a final reckoning: stretching out the words, a quasi-fictional rapper sings the song right before blowing his brains out.
The first song on Summertime ‘06, Staples’ ambitious debut album, also ended with a gunshot, but the targets were varied. There, strafing between his past and his present, Staples wove a rich tapestry of adoration and alienation, a love letter to his hometown of Long Beach, California written in the blood that stains its streets. Prima Donna is much more narrow in scope. The brief EP finds Staples playing puppeteer to a rap star who finds fame to be unfulfilling. Nearly every song is appended by an acapella coda in which the forlorn rap star speaks directly, his voice heavy yet hopeful. It’s unclear whether the codas are song demos or confessionals, but that seems to be the point: the same art that gives the rap star life is slowly killing him.
Death is a vital force on Prima Donna. Chronologically, the album moves backward in time from the rap star’s death, beginning with him committing suicide and ending with him as a gangbanger, each successive track contextualizing his suicide. “War Ready” begins with a sample from Outkast’s “Atliens” where Andre 3000 proclaims he’s found a stronger weapon than his glock: his words. The sample is looped three times, 3000’s voice becoming more clear with each repetition, the rapper inching away from self-destruction. But the kicker is that what he inches toward isn’t particularly vitalizing. Staples peppers the first verse with a punishing string of desolate imagery. Unflinching, he raps “Heaven hell, free or jail, same shit/ County jail, bus, slave ship, same shit/ Wise man once said/ that a black man better off dead.” Death has always been a theme in Staples’ music, but here it’s a refuge, a perfectly reasonable consideration, not a consequence. And that’s just two minutes in.
As the EP proceeds, Vince sketches out the rap star through sharp vignettes. “Loco,” a spiritual sequel to Summertime 06’s “Loca,” finds the star simultaneously in the middle of a fling and an existential crisis, his mind and his trousers bursting at the seams. Effortlessly, Vince sets the scene, the rhymes packed tight: “Out of my mind, she out of red wine/She woozy, bitch bougie, straight from Dubai/She love to hip pop, she love the slick talk/Gave head then begged the boy to Crip walk.” The tension is devastating, amped up tenfold by the instrumental’s glitchy whir of warped sirens and screeching alarms. On “Pimp Hand” Vince details the rapper’s days in Long Beach, totally removed from rap. “No Boot Camp Clik’in, we was food stamp flickin’” he hisses, a world away from underground rap.
The final track, “Big Time,” features the rap star at his happiest, established in the streets and loving it. “Man, I love this Crippin, man my homies wit it,” Staples boasts in the opening verse, full of pride. Lines like this put the earlier suicide into sharp focus—something was lost as the rap star became famous—but Staples doesn’t offer easy outs. Despite the pre-fame rap star clearly being proud of his fiefdom, he’s annoyed by what lies beyond his reach. “Sick of these rappers not selling no drugs, sick of the industry playing these games, sick of my enemies saying my name,” Staples raps, his voice pitched up to a manic, almost prepubescent shriek.
It’s here where it becomes most clear that the unnamed rap star is an alternative version of Vince himself, from the Long Beach origins, to the past life as a gangbanger. In interviews and public appearances, Staples has repeatedly scorned the significance of entertainment, pivoting questions about his music toward issues he cares about, like police violence, miseducation, and poverty. Staples is deeply skeptical of fame and its costs and Prima Donna raises that skepticism to existential heights. The EP reportedly is constructed to be played forward or backward, and both directions are bleak: you can either experience a black man spiral away from death or toward it, knowing that he hates his life.
This should be the coldest nihilism, but Vince Staples makes it entirely compelling. And it’s not just the protean instrumentals, which skid between hip hop, blues, industrial rock and abstract electronica and sound like nothing in rap today. Neither is it the impeccable rapping, which is some of Staples’ best work to date. What clinches this EP is its audacity. In an era of hyper-public black death, Vince Staples builds his case against our society not by detailing how these deaths occur, but by describing a tragic life, one that’s so unsatisfying that death is its zenith. The Roots’ undun and Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly also wrestled with the weight of black death, but for them death was always tragic. In the world of Prima Donna, black death is radical. Author Paul Beatty came to the same conclusion in his satirical novel The White Boy Shuffle, but Vince does it in 20 gripping minutes. Never has so much been done with one little light.