The first voice we hear rapping on Prima Donna, the new Vince Staples EP, does not belong to Vince Staples. Instead, it belongs to André 3000, and it comes from a song that André made before he added the 3000 to his name. It’s the whole final verse from “ATLiens,” the title track from an album that came out 20 years, almost to the day, before Prima Donna. That verse, chopped up and made more hectic, opens “War Ready,” the first proper song from Prima Donna. James Blake, producer of the song, hacks up and distends the final two lines from that verse: “Put my glock away, I got a stronger weapon that never runs out of ammunition, so I’m ready for war, OK?” Blake really glitches those lines up, treating André’s voice the way he treated Aaliyah’s back in 2009, when people still talked about Blake as a dubstep producer. Then the beat locks in, and we hear Staples chanting: “Born ready, waaar ready.” It sounds like he’s channeling a Master P banger or something, but that André quote, repeated so many times, gives it new context. Staples is going to war with his voice, and he’s doing it by making the weirdest major-label rap EP we’ve heard in years.
The major-label rap EP has a noble history, but it’s mostly died away in recent years, and Staples appears to be the one guy who understands just how bracing and intense a shorter set of songs can be. In 2014, before he released last year’s double-album stunner Summertime ’06, Staples made his major-label debut with a seven-song monster called Hell Can Wait. That EP was hard and smart in equal measure, calling back to California G-rap orthodoxy while using blaring noise as a sonic special effect. Prima Donna feels even more out-there, and not just because he’s convinced Blake to go back to his jittery electronic roots. Blake produces two tracks: “War Ready” and the mutant-grime closer “Big Time.” The other tracks come from DJ Dahi and No ID, past Staples collaborators. But both of them push their sound in different directions, bringing in a bleepy choppiness that reminds me of early-’00s Neptunes or arena-rock guitars that sound entirely foreign in the context of a Vince Staples track.
Prima Donna opens with Vince Staples, his voice craggy and distorted, mumble-singing “This Little Light Of Mine.” He gets a few seconds in when a loud gunshot interrupts his voice. It’s a genuinely shocking moment. Staples also ends many of his songs with quiet little spoken-word poems, many of them about how close he is to giving up on everything. On the chorus of the noisy, stomping, guitar-laced “Smile,” Staples croons, “I feel my life is in danger every night when I lay / So can you do something for me? Smile for me.” Prima Donna is an EP with layers. I got my promo copy a few days ago, so even though it’s only six songs long, I’m still unpacking it. But it seems to be about the way personal and political can be the same thing, especially when you feel targeted, when you feel like there’s some societal bad faith in the air — about how, when you look at the world around you, depression feels inevitable.
Futility is a big theme for Staples. It’s what makes him too smart to work as a full-on rap star. There’s no transcendence in his music. He’s capable of glittering, badass one-liners, and there are plenty of them on Prima Donna: “I write the James Joyce, don’t need the Rolls Royce”; “I’m in a black Benz speeding with my black skin gleaming.” And there’s exhilaration to be found on Prima Donna. But where some of the best rappers make you feel powerful when you listen to them, Staples does the opposite. He makes you feel powerless, and that’s what makes him such a compelling writer.
Prima Donna has the odd misfortune of coming out in the same week as another album, one that sucks up a whole lot of the oxygen in the room. As it happens, the other album happens to be another follow-up to a masterpiece, one that comes from someone who first came to fame because of an Odd Future connection. That other album also has André 3000’s voice on it and James Blake’s name in the credits, and it’s also a complicated and personal and sometimes devastatingly sad piece of work. Frank Ocean’s Blonde, of course, deserves your attention. But don’t let its existence lead you to overlook Prima Donna, an EP that says a whole lot more than most full-length albums.
Other albums of note out this week:
• Frank Ocean’s Blonde and Endless.
• De La Soul’s all-star crowdfunded return …And The Anonymous Nobody.
• Cass McCombs’ jarringly jammy Mangy Love.
• SubRosa’s ambitious doom opus For This We Fought The Battle Of Ages.
• Twist’s sprightly, electronic rocker Spectral.
• Morgan Delt’s languid psych-rocker Phase Zero.
• Cassius’ guest-heavy sunshiney dance comeback Ibifornia.
• Banks & Steelz’ bizarro team-up debut Anything But Words.
• The Veils’ El-P-co-produced post-punker Total Depravity.
• Katy Goodman and Greta Morgan’s punk rock cover collection Take It, It’s Yours.
• Dark Forest’s classic metal revival Beyond The Veil.
• The Bad Plus’ eclectic jazz covers collection It’s Hard.
• The Album Leaf’s gurgling, ambient Between Waves.
• Mild High Club’s psychedelic jazz-funker Skiptracing.
• Space Mountain’s sharply bummed-out Big Sky.
• The Fresh & Onlys side project Magic Trick’s largely improvised Other Man’s Blues.
• Glass Animals’ R&B-influenced electro-popper How To Be A Human Being.
• Britney Spears’ partytime comeback attempt Glory.
• Carly Rae Jepsen’s B-sides collection E•MO•TION: Side B.
• The benefit compilation Clearmountain Compilation Vol. 1.
• The Roadies soundtrack.
• Prophets’ Of Rage’s The Party’s Over EP.
• Hoops’ self-titled EP.
• Lowell’s Part 1: PARIS YK EP.
• Pusher’s New Laces EP.
• Dendritic Arbor and Infinite Waste’s split EP.