His new EP is his best work to date.
The chorus of "Prima Donna," the title track on Vince Staples' new EP, out today, tells you a lot about the young artist's current state of mind. The words "Is it real, is it, is it real? Real, real, real…" swirl in three-part harmony, and it's a question that seems to be nagging at him: At just 23 years old, Vince Staples has put the "fakeness" of not just the music industry, but of society, in his crosshairs.
Over the phone, he assures me that lines like "I'm sick of these rappers not selling no drugs" carry no deeper meaning than the literal one. But his tone suggests he might be fed up with music journalists asking these sorts of questions. Maybe this is the bullshit Staples is sick of—the hand-shaking, ass-kissing parts of being a famous artist. During one of the album's several interludes, lifted directly from voice notes Staples made on his phone about song ideas, he sings, "Sometimes I feel like giving up" over and over again. He says things like "People are so stupid sometimes" and "I've never had any dreams" in a disarming, matter-of-fact way. Great art is said to come from pain—maybe it can also come from apathy.
But you only need to listen to Prima Donna once to see what Staples does care about, and that's the craft of making music. For a seven-song EP (itself a rare, understated release format in 2016), Prima Donna is a remarkably top-tier production. It was crafted by a trio of producers most artists can only dream of: James Blake, DJ Dahi (previous production credits include Drake's "Worst Behavior" and Kendrick Lamar's "Money Trees"), and No I.D., who mentored Kanye West early in his career and executive produced Staples' acclaimed debut album, Summertime '06, in 2015. "Big Time," as just one example, is an industrial beat song that sounds like a descendant of Kanye West's 2013 album Yeezus and closes with a signature James Blake electronic breakdown.
While production is certainly awe-inspiring, there's no denying Vince Staples' ability to skillfully expose the hollowness of hip-hop's frequently self-aggrandizing lyrics. On "Big Time," he raps, "They paid me 80K / I put it away for a rainy day / You never know when you gonna catch a case"—an unexpectedly poignant line about fiscal responsibility. "My bitch look like Mona Lisa," he raps on the Outkast-sampling "War Ready," which can be seen as both a brag or a joke. Even when Vince Staples is serious, he can't help but be funny. (See: every video we've ever done with the guy, including the one below.) And on top of all that, it's been said Vince Staples has the best-sounding voice in the rap game.
Ultimately, he says, "It's not up to me to tell people how to live their lives." But he's an example of maturity and honest creative expression in an age when fakeness isn't just tolerated but celebrated. Later, Staples tells me, "I think everyone should try to learn something new every day." If you want to learn something today, listen to Prima Donna. You might just learn that in music today, it doesn't get any realer than this.