Vince Staples, Rap's Acclaimed Iconoclast, On His Ambitious 'Prima Donna' EP & Why 'Trump Is No Better or Worse Than Any of These People'

Lucy Hewett
Vince Staples photographed on July 31, 2016 in Chicago.

If you're in need of movie tips, Vince Staples might not be the guy to ask. Over breakfast on a recent morning at New York’s Soho Grand hotel, the 23-year-old rapper is mounting a vigorous defense of the evangelical action flick Left Behind (which netted a 2 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes) -- even though he’s not religious. “It’s a very important movie,” says Staples. “Have you seen The Passion of the Christ? How the f-- you seen that and not Left Behind? Mel Gibson has never been the hot shit. He’s no Tom Cruise. Nobody has ever said, ‘Mel Gibson has the gift.’ I just invented that sentence -- literally no one’s said that before.”

Spend any time with Staples and you’ll get a heavy dose of this -- a hilarious, pop-culture-obsessed stream of skewed opinions and general oddness. Ask him to delve deeply into his ambitious, psychedelic and hugely fan-anticipated new EP, Prima Donna (out Aug. 26, with production from James Blake, DJ Dahi and No I.D.), though, and he’ll mostly decline, hewing to the classic principle of smart, young, slightly cynical guys everywhere: Everything is subjective, so what’s the point?

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“We live in a time when people are explaining everything for reasons that I do not understand,” he says, taking a sip of pineapple-wheatgrass juice. “They’re all just songs. You make them and people can relate to them how they want.”

Staples slips into a nerdy music-journalist voice by way of illustration: “The rapper Young Insert-Rest-of-His-Name-Here makes an album about the trials and tribulations of his teenage years,” he says. “Now I don’t even have to listen to the record -- you just told me what it is!” It’s a peculiar stance, particularly because his 2015 Def Jam debut, Summertime ’06 -- almost exactly the album he just described -- drew critical adoration, if lower-than-expected sales. Executive produced by No I.D., who helped shepherd the career of a young Kanye West, the LP is based on one wild summer in Staples’ hometown of Long Beach, Calif., during which he spent his time chasing girls and committing criminal acts as a young, firearm-toting Crip. “I had a lot of guns,” he says.

Vince Staples photographed July 31, 2016 in Chicago.Lucy Hewett

The album arrived at a moment when hip-hop’s biggest stars (West, Kendrick Lamar, Drake) were leading a push into stranger, more personal and more experimental territory -- blazing a trail for a generation of young, adventurous artists, from Staples and Chance the Rapper to Young Thug. Prima Donna goes even further in that regard, with a free-form sensibility that is signified by the sample of Outkast’s “ATLiens” that Staples and Blake use to kick off the track “War Ready.” Employing a dizzying, Eminem-ish variety of cadences and quick-wit references, Staples mines a major theme: his deep ambivalence about everything, from his desire for money or romantic attachment to the value of hip-hop itself.

That apathy extends to the current election; he has no plans to vote. “I’m just not interested,” he says. “Donald Trump is no better or worse than any of these people. He says off-deck things that are perceived as racist -- that are racist -- but we have people on our money who had slaves. I’m not here to point fingers. Within our music we push drugs and violence, so I don’t feel like I’m any better. I’m trying to get better.”

Vince Staples Announces 'Prima Donna' EP

Self improvement has been a gradual process. Staples was a good student (“It’s easy when you listen”) and obsessively read the Encarta encyclopedia his mom had on her computer. He also says he was largely immune to peer pressure, which is why he has never had a drink or tried an illicit drug. But his life veered off course when his -increasingly tumultuous home life prompted him to drop out of school in 10th grade, which led to spending more time on the streets. Despite lacking ambition to make music, a mutual friend introduced him to Odd Future’s Syd Tha Kyd, and Staples began hanging out at the SoCal crew’s studio. Soon he was recording his own tunes. Attention for a verse on an early Earl Sweatshirt song led to hanging with Mac Miller, who produced and was featured on Staples’ breakout 2013 mixtape Stolen Youth. “Rick Rubin always says true hip-hop has a renegade’s spirit, an outlaw’s spirit,” says No I.D. “Vince has that without trying to be anything but himself.”

For Prima Donna, which is stitched together with lo-fi singsong-y bits that are actually voicemails Staples left himself as part of his songwriting process, the MC only wanted to work with people he likes personally. (The collaborators also include ASAP Rocky and rapper-singer Kilo Kish.) He and experimental English producer Blake began as mutual fans and became fast friends in the studio.

Staples doesn’t listen to much outside music when he’s writing, but when he does, he returns to the same handful of material: The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, West’s Yeezus, Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black, Portishead’s Third. Recently he moved into a downtown Los Angeles loft, though he hasn’t gotten to spend a lot of time there. For similar reasons, he hasn’t had a girlfriend since 2015. “You can’t have a serious relationship in this job,” he says. “That would be immature and selfish of me -- I have a lot of obligations.”

His overall goal, he insists, is a simple one: “I just want to make enough money to not have to do this if I don’t want to,” he says, flashing a sly, gap-toothed smile, “while only doing what I want.” 

This article originally appeared in the Sept. 3 issue of Billboard.


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