The Conceptual Genius of Vince Staples’ “Prima Donna”
The first bite of a slice of freshly baked, moist, chocolate cake is a blast of euphoria the moment it touches your taste buds. A sweet tooth isn’t satisfied with one bite — it’s greedy, demanding, and dissatisfied with just a single piece as a tease. You must finish the entire slice. That’s the feeling of hearing a song on an album during your first listen and knowing that something has rubbed against the sweet part of your eardrum. You are left with an irresistible craving for that euphoria again.
Listening to a great album is like eating a great cake, every piece is better than the last. When one listen turns into many, you know there’s something special. This past weekend, Vince Staples’ Prima Donna gave me that euphoric feeling — it played as the officer pulled me over and let me go, it played as I pulled up to Donald Glover’s screening of Atlanta, and it played as Twitter made the VMAs the best show on television. My 1-Listen review wasn’t enough.
When you first listen to a new music project, there’s the instinctive search for a verse, lyric, line, or sound that that becomes the magnetic factor of what compels you to return again. What I gravitated toward was the concept that made Prima Donna an album to hear more than once. When I read in Fader that Vince would be creating an EP centered around a rapper committing suicide, I was intrigued by the darkness. A raw subject from one of modern raps most acclaimed storytellers. I didn’t expect it, but when the gun goes off in the intro, I imagine the cold steel pressed against Vince’s temple sending a bullet from one side to the other. But the album doesn’t end with death, it begins. All the songs move in reverse, the album transitions as if it’s rewinding back to a specific moment.
There was a time when an album’s tracklisting was sacred, in the era of cassettes a new album could only move forward and backwards, but in the digital era there’s endless possibilities to edit albums the way you see fit. It only took seconds to reconstruct Prima Donna, flipping the entire tracklisting upside down, beginning the story with “Big Time” and ending with “Let It Shine.”
Instead of being greeted with a gun-shot, Vince starts the album off with a brash aggressiveness, bragging about becoming big time. Without context, you would assume that Vince is rapping from his own perspective with all the mentions of gangbanging, radio never playing him, and quitting rap if the label doesn’t pay him. A good indication of the transition from struggle rapper to blowing up happens before the hook comes in, when he recalls going to the studio when no one would listen. Now he’s big time, a rapper on the verge of blowing up. “Pimp Hand,” now the second song, also fits within Vince’s subject palette. He matches his tough talk with imagery that paints the picture of where he comes from, the environment, the madness of his home and life.
“Prima Donna,” the EP’s title track is when everything begins to truly shift. In the very first verse he says, “All the homies say I’m different, police say I raise suspicion, buy a million dollar home and blow my dome to paint the kitchen.” The lyrics seem autobiographical knowing Vince’s current status in rap, but as the song continues there’s a subtle change in arrogance that makes it a bit clearer that this is rapper who is knocking on fame’s door and not some struggle rapper who was a former gangster. He taunts about not giving away features, never going back to being broke, and how he feels like a popstar that’s being driven crazy by the music. He survived the streets but the music industry is a completely different battle.
“Prima Donna’s” hook repeats, “Is it real?” and A$AP Rocky’s addition to the a bridge is a simple, “Once you get addicted to it” that’s constantly repeated — representing the disillusion that comes with rising to fame and getting hooked on the lifestyle. “Prima Donna” also marks where the protagonist begins to add the little blues singing interludes at the very end of each song. He sings about all the things he’s fed up by, but the part that stood out to me most was, “I just wanna live forever” — a very interesting choice of words for someone who will eventually kill himself. The story is backwards when listening to the album as is, but that one line is the first big change that shows how adjusting the tracklisting completely changes the album’s narrative.
“Loco” is where the insanity has pushed him off the deep end; in the Marriott with Kurt Cobain dreams, ignoring housekeeping while standing in the mirror holding a large revolver — think Kendrick’s “u” with more insanity and less self-reflection. Kilo Kish represents the voice in his head that’s trying to talk him off the ledge. My favorite line has to be, “I don’t need a shrink I need a hit song.” The interlude shows his deeper descent into depression, he’s reaching the breaking point, he’s about to crack.
“Smile” is the rapper at his most introspective — he’s asking for someone to smile for him at his most unhappiness. Lyrics like, “I know they hoping that it’s right back to the ghettos I go,” “I turned my back on my friends, I turned my back on my home,” “I know money come and go so money not my motive no mo, I made enough to know I’ll never make enough for my soul” — money isn’t enough, the industry sees him as an object and not a person, and he can’t return to the home and friends he shunned in success. With one verse he internalizes J. Cole’s ideology, “Think being broke was better.”
“War Ready” is the only song I haven’t completely deciphered. The song begins with lines about wanting to get away before leaving his brains on the ceiling, but it slowly transitions into race. Connecting similarities to the county jail and slaves ships, lynchings, and a quote, “A black man is better off dead.” Race is mentioned enough where you know it has a deeper meaning to the character’s psyche, it’s more alluding to the mental effects of being a black man in the music industry and America — a topic that Vince has never strayed from.
The EP ends with “Let It Shine” when, after struggling with the decision, the trigger is finally pulled. Ending with his death is a traditional closure, but it also feels fitting. It shows how the project was made to make sense if you flip the tracklisting, but it requires you to hear the project more than once. That’s the genius of Prima Donna — the project encourages you to listen in a different way. The smallest change can impact the entire experience. Even the album’s mood is altered once you change the tracklisting — the production starts to feel more schizophrenic and bizarre as he becomes more famous and loses more of his mind. “Smile” feels like your brain melting in a microwave, compared to the sparse and minimalistic “Pimp Hand,” the soundscape feels maddening as Vince goes more crazy. I read some critiques about the production, but insanity is supposed to feel eccentric, off-kilter, and off-beat. For the story, for the listening experience, the unconventional makes more sense than going with a sound that’s more popular.
But the biggest question that has yet to be answered — is the rapper supposed to represent Vince? Has he lost his sanity in exchange for being famous? Vince and the rapper he’s portraying have too many similarities to be dismissed as a coincidence, but it’s also worth noting that the EP is supposed to be the soundtrack to a movie. Vince wrote a script centered around the events that unfold, there’s been a few screenings, but no definitive release date has been set. I’m sure the movie will fill in any narrative holes that weren’t covered throughout the seven songs. Prima Donna could represent an alternative perspective on Vincent’s career from Vincent’s point-of-view. Vince is very vocal about being anti-fame, but what if he wasn’t? What if he wanted to have all the money and fame? A life he doesn’t see any happiness in based on how the EP begins and ends.
Directed by Nabil Elderkin, the roughly 10-minute visual finds Staples struggling with success. It starts with the project cover’s big-headed caricature filming a music video, bobbing between derrieres. But once the director yells “cut,” Vince’s head goes back to normal. He looks tired and unhappy. “Everyday’s a long day,” he says. “I need a vacation.” But instead of a vacation, Staples goes on a mental trip through The Prima Donna Hotel. He sees overzealous fans in empty hallways and fantasizes about a woman who vanishes in the midst of passion. He can’t seem to shake these hallucinations as his hotel room becomes nightmarish, walls shaking as “War Ready” plays. “Think of heading to Ibiza,” he raps on the track. “Need a breather from the tripping/ Either that or my brains to the ceiling.” — Vince Staples Premieres Existential ‘Prima Donna’ Short Film in Los Angeles
Conceptual albums put storytelling in the forefront as the most important detail. The artist creates a world for the listener — making it imperative that you listen to the lyrics. Lyrics are the cookie crumbs that help you connect the dots to the bigger picture. Vince cares about the bigger picture, that’s one reason I find his music to be so compelling. He’s a rap artist that is penning the kind of verses that make you listen to every word. If you already listened to Prima Donna, I highly recommend listening to it again, but this time with an updated track listing.
Cut yourself another slice of cake, you might be surprised that the second time will leave you more satisfied than the first.
By Yoh, follow him on Twitter.
Photo Credit: Instagram
Originally published at DJBooth.net on August 29, 2016.