The intro track to Vince Staples’ new EP Prima Donna, “Let It Shine,” is a dusky rendition of the children’s gospel tune “This Little Light Of Mine.” It could either be interpreted as a prayer or a suicide note, depending on how you listen—but it isn’t clear which one Staples would prefer.
Staples pulls off this hazy ambivalence throughout Prima Donna with daring lyrics and finesse, rapping his way through the seven-track triumph with a professional ease that would never betray him as a 22-year-old who tweets about his love for Lil’ Bow Wow.
The young artist has always been multiple leagues above his own expectations, but it seems like Staples is finally done under-selling himself.
On first listen, “Let It Shine” seems like a classic Vince Staples move, reminiscent of the opener to his debut LP Summertime ’06. The vocals start silky and quiet and they’re cut off abruptly with the sound of a gunshot; it compromises the comfort of its listeners for the sake of pure shock.
But when the tracks are listened to in reverse order, positioning “Let It Shine” at the very end, the sharp sound is no longer a stunt to grab your attention. It becomes a sobering close to an explosive saga.
Prima Donna isn’t simply a concept album or a haphazard collection of songs: it’s a story without a moral. It asks, “What’s worse, feeling nothing or feeling everything?” and offers little resolution.
The structure itself is a testament to the intelligence and precision that Staples employs in his music production. An album that can be played both forwards and backwards, without compromising any joy of the listening experience in either direction, already deserves an ovation.
But this two-pronged approach goes much further, further developing the album’s protagonist and his divisive lifestyle.
Vince Staples the rapper—who grew up with gang affiliations in Long Beach and stumbled upon musical success on a whim—writes smart, poignant lyrics about Vince Staples the character. The two are a lot alike.
On the album’s title track “Prima Donna,” Staples raps about his new life, which is besieged by money and fame—though hardly free of inner conflict (“Buy a million dollar home and blow my dome to paint the kitchen / Bitches like, ‘is that Venetian?’”).
Staples struggles to reconcile his past and present, grappling with both survivors’ guilt from escaping his dangerous hometown and the temptations of newfound fame. The self-loathing sentiments on early tracks like “Smile” and “War Ready” (“Heaven, Hell, free or jail, same shit / County jail bus, slave ship, same shit / A wise man once said that a black man better off dead”) melt into the boastful final tracks “Pimp Hand” and “Big Time” (“Man I love my bitches/ Man they photogenic”).
With that clear of a structure, it would be easy—and inaccurate—to call this album a linear narrative.
In the last few seconds of the swollen-headed “Big Time,” the last song on Prima Donna, a distorted voice is heard asking, “Is anybody there?” It’s disconcerting after hearing Staples rap exuberantly about his bitches—but then again, that’s just the point.
Staples never lets you get too comfortable, and for that, we should thank him.