Vince Staples has never been one for linearity. He can jump between dejected soul and inspirational activist, often within the same track, even the same line. Density and expression are far more important than moving from point A to point B – a double-edged sword that Staples has wielded skillfully in releases past and now present.
This was clear on the closing track of Staples’ masterful debut album Summertime ’06, stating “Next time on Poppy Street…” and cutting off not 45 seconds into the track. The effect keeps us on edge, ready for what’s around the corner, an allusion to the frenzied and dangerous life on the Long Beach streets that Staples portrays. Never mind that the teaser never materializes in full on Prima Donna; Staples continues where he was cut off with a claustrophobic atmosphere and vigor to match that of his debut.
For those even vaguely familiar with Staples, Prima Donna will play as immediately familiar. The production, though this time handled by a wider scope of producers (including British electronic artist and singer James Blake), fits squarely within the scope of Summertime ’06. Even the track titles can cause chronological confusion: Was is “Loca” or “Loco” which was on Summertime? Haven’t I heard this line before?
While some artists can be dragged by redundancy with this kind of repetition, Staples manages to use it to further his politically charged work. That it becomes difficult to distinguish musically between his work today, a year ago, or two years ago rehashes Staples’s protest: the police brutality and systemic racism he dealt with then hasn’t changed so much today.
Perhaps it has even gotten worse. The most noticeable progression on Prima Donna is in Staples’s tone, which can sound more downtrodden and dystopic than anything he’s released before. The EP opens with a croaking spoken word segment, simply repeating “I’m gonna let it shine” over and over, distant, like a man sitting in a dark corner cupping a fledgling flame. And then, “Crack!”, we’re shot into the first legitimate track, “War Ready” — on first listen the jolt can actually frighten you. Staples is apt at capturing his audience’s attention with these kind of musical breaks, intruding on silence and moments of lull with loud noises and sudden transitions, forcing you to pay closer attention and disallowing casual listening. The third Andre 3000 verse from “ATLiens” is sampled to start the track, and his words from 1995 are eerily in line with those from Staples, nearly 20 years later.
The jump between downtrodden and optimistic that Staples uses liberally is clearest on the transition between that first full track “War Ready” and the next, “Smile,” an upbeat, guitar driven anthem. He acknowledges the distress voiced just before, but looks up and tells the world – and himself – “… when life gets hard / And you just think / You wanna end it all / Smile for me.”
Prima Donna also finds Staples experimenting with different flows and rhythms, clearest on closing track “Big Time,” a testosterone-fueled gang boast produced by James Blake. He stretches his voice to a higher pitch and bites the pulsing beat, similar to Detroit rapper Danny Brown’s cadence. It’s one of his most successful street anthems to date, and one of his most adventurous. The beat could easily drown out less consuming rappers, but Staples controls it, making it bow to him.
And again, this release ends with a teaser: “Next time on Poppy Street… .” This glimpse is far darker than the last though, with rainfall in the background and a scared voice asking “Hello, is anybody there?” Whether these teasers somehow materialize onto Staples sophomore LP or not, the message is clear — there’s no time to wait.