Right before I dove into Vince Staples’ assaultive new EP Prima Donna I was listening to some well-harmonized gospel country by the Louvin Brothers (Nearer My God to Thee). Now that is strange, I get it, but it’s more bizarre how they actually relate. The Louvin Brothers’ album contains a cover of “This Little Light of Mine” which is what Staples is mumble singing like a post-apocalyptic junkie at the beginning of Prima Donna. (SPOILER: He then pulls the trigger and the track ends.) A constant in much of the Louvin Brothers’ best work is fatalism. It can be hidden at times, or it can be totally forthright. Vince had a hook on his last record that was simply “They found another dead body in the alley.” You knew there was nothing that could’ve been done to save that person when he stretched out the words on that grim hook. The Louvin Bros. once eschewed their Gospel of Hope to flatly declare “SATAN IS REAL TOO.” The world Staples paints in shades of black and gray confirms his “realness.”
Hell Staples asks “Who the activist and who the devil’s advocate? Or do it matter?” in the skittering, James Blake produced, Andre 3K sampling “War Ready.” You can almost hear the paranoia in his voice as he posits the question. The person with the biggest smile on their face promising to “help” can also wreak the most havoc. I mean the disastrous “War on Drugs” was supposed to “help” and basically became a way to target hippies and African-Americans in the inner-city. The Ramona Park Staples is recalling on “War Ready” is, in part, a result of the run-off from that war. It’s now a place where “Hammers bust like a soda in the freezer,” where a black man is “better off dead” because hitting 35 is as likely as hitting the lotto. In this world the devil isn’t a wolf in sheep’s clothing, he’s prowling around like a lion.
Not that Vince is really worried about any red devils. Prima Donna is an a-religious experience where you can pray every night in bed and still go to sleep scared. In the dark as the soul of the night outro to the frenetic “Loco,” Staples deflates: “What my pastor say? Some shit that I don’t believe.” What is believable, what does feel real to Staples is that people could want him to fail. “I know they hoping it’s right back to the ghettos I go” he snarls over DJ Dahi’s arena-rock stomp in “Smile.” He’s profiled by police in the A$AP Rocky-assisted title track while his friends derisively say he’s “different.” In the background you can periodically hear what sound like the Pharcyde “Um, well excuse me” voices if they were stretched to their breaking point. You know, the sort of razor’s edge where you might wind up melting down on a “Primavera stage.”
Throughout the EP, Staples is unmistakably at a breaking point and the music reflects it. Distended vocals repeatedly stab at him on “Pimp Hand.” Closer “Big Time,” also produced by James Blake, is buoyed by queasy drums and soullessly robotic tics. (And the last 10 seconds or so sound like the nightmare music from a MegaMan boss battle.) Multiple songs end with Staples muttering some variant of “Fed up with the gun violence…Fed up with the youth dying” or, “Sometimes I feel like giving up.” If it hasn’t already been said, this is wearying stuff. You won’t really want to get up and doing something afterward.
But Staples has long had a way of making the hellacious seem hypnotic. Even if it does end with Staples slumped over, “I load the .44, then paint the Van Gogh” is an unarguably great piece of writing. So to is “Learned the power of words when we was younger…turned the African into a n***** then they hung him.” Every last thing we say and do has resonance. The littlest thing can have the biggest impact. The “Smile” Vince Staples is asking for on the song of the same name could potentially save a life. There’s a chance of redemption here, you just have to stare into the abyss to see it.