On Pico Boulevard near Genesee, in Los Angeles, there’s this large, tan eyesore of an office building. I can’t count how many times I’ve driven past that thing in three years living here, but it took me until three months ago to stop and look closely enough to notice that this monolith has no windows, and no roof. It’s just the facade of an office building that houses a handful of oil wells, extracting crude from the Beverly Hills Oil Field. There’s a whole subterranean L.A. that goes unseen to the naked (or negligent) eye — some "3,700 derricks extract oil from about 55 active oil fields in the Los Angeles area alone" — but they’re mostly hidden; tucked behind high schools, stashed on country club golf courses, or nestled inside shopping malls; symbolic of a city, and maybe a larger world, that prefers the smooth curves of fiction to the jagged edges of fact.
Vince Staples, who grew up half an hour south of those oil wells, in Long Beach, counteracts that civic dispassion with projects that feel like captain’s logs, illuminating — but never romanticizing — street violence, the resulting loss of innocence, and police brutality.
Staples released the Prima Donna EP on Thursday, his first offering since Summertime ’06, the unheard-of double-disc "official" debut (he had put out a series of mixtapes and EPs prior) released last June.
Summertime ’06 began with cawing seagulls dispersed with the clap of gunfire, and Prima Donna begins similarly, with Staples galumphing his way through a low-spirited rendition of "This Little Light of Mine," blowing his figurative brains out before he can finish the first refrain. It’s hard to describe Staples’s music without using words like "stark" and "bleak," but Prima Donna is some of the most desolate shit he’s produced to date.
The project is a quick seven tracks, with features from A$AP Rocky and Kilo Kish, and production from the likes of James Blake, DJ Dahi, and the legendary No I.D. Staples’s rapping is as razor-sharp as ever, but here, on the cusp of stardom and with damn-near universal acclaim, he sounds more hopeless than ever. On "War Ready," which starts with an André 3000 verse clipped from "ATLiens," Staples toys with the idea of suicide (again): "Thinking of heading to Ibiza / need a breather from the tripping / either that or my brains to the ceiling."
In just over 21 minutes, you get the sense of a young man (in age only) beset on all sides by bullshit: being Black in America, dealing with rappers that talk big but don’t have any bodies on them ("Big Time"), the pressures of growing notoriety. Staples’s biting, nasally disillusionment is delivered with a wink. On "Prima Donna" he raps: "Feelin’ like a pop star, music drive a nigga crazy / think I’m finna pull a Wavves on the Primavera stage." Even when deadly serious, Staples is always at least a little droll.
When Dave Chappelle went on Inside the Actors Studio with James Lipton back in 2006, he spoke about his abrupt and much-maligned retreat to Africa the year before. It was right after he’d been offered a $50 million television deal on the heels of two mega-successful seasons of Chappelle’s Show.
The week before, Chappelle appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show to spoon out an explanation for what was outwardly perceived as a meltdown, citing a work environment that wasn’t up to scratch, and a laugh from someone on set who was white that struck him as creepy. With Lipton, Chappelle was less concerned with being funny or diplomatic than he was with being understood: "The worst thing to call somebody is crazy. It’s dismissive. I don’t understand this person, so they’re crazy.’ … Maybe the environment is a little sick." Then he leaned over to light his cigarette, the walls already starting to go back up.
In The Fader’s June cover story on Staples, writer Jeff Weiss presented the idea of his subject as a stand-up comedian, capable of switching codes and shifting shapes, not totally unlike Chappelle. He was game for a laugh onstage, and "morose and skeptical once the camera’s shut off." Staples can make you piss yourself in laughter, talking about how Amish people definitely have iPhones and how he’s "never seen nobody in a wheelchair just takin’ they fuckin’ time," or he can shake you to your core with a missive about watching teenaged friends die in the hopeless carousel of gang violence.
Whoever he’s being at the moment, whatever he’s doing, Staples definitely isn’t hiding.
There are two lo-fi interludes jammed into Prima Donna. The first comes near the end of "Smile" — the title of which is a bit of a misnomer — when Staples sucks the air out of the room, connecting sparse thoughts into a saturnine elegy: "don’t say you feel my pain ’cause I don’t even feel myself / blood rushing to my brain, sometimes I wanna kill myself / sometimes I feel like giving up." With pragmatic barbs, like "I’ve made enough to know I’ll never make enough for my soul," over flaming stadium guitars, "Smile" is impressively (enjoyably) harsh in its own right, but these few lines hummed into a cassette deck feel even more deadpan and unstinting; the private thoughts of someone that hasn’t been a "kid" since 13. Now an ancient 23, Staples had barely even started high school then, and was facing multiple fallacious felony charges.
He neither mourns nor condemns the players in his illicit tales. He doesn’t try to Solve The Problem. After Summertime ’06 came out, Staples told NPR’s Microphone Check that he just sees things as they are. "My job is to keep my sanity."
And this is how he keeps it: airing his grievances to the world, as plainly as possible. On the tail end of Prima Donna’s title track, Staples drones out his second rough, but detailed sketch: "Fed up with the sun shinin’, fed up with the gun violence / fed up with the old rules, fed up with the young dying." Who knows if anything will come of it, but shit, at least he said it.