We sit down with the Long Beach rapper to talk his new EP 'Prima Donna,' the dumb nature of rap beefs, why everything is corny, the internet, art, and a whole lot more.
Photo by Jason Favreau
Prima Donna, the new EP from Vince Staples, is a twisting force. Clocking in at a short seven tracks, it aggressively bounces, feeling a bit like a warped and chaotic punch to the gut. It’s music meant for shaking the walls of wherever you find yourself listening, a natural companion to last year’s LP Summertime ’06, both lyrically and sonically, and feels like a nice stepping stone to whatever the Long Beach rapper has coming next. The project was produced by a dream trio of producers—James Blake, DJ Dahi (“Worst Behavior”), and No I.D. (Kanye West)—and features guest spots from A$AP Rocky and Kilo Kish. At times, it feels like your headphones are bursting at their seams. This shit sounds like an earthquake.
In person, Staples is the opposite: charming, smiling, and polite. On a recent stop to the VICE office for an interview for the Noisey Beats 1 radio show, he’s sporting an on-brand modest outfit: navy hooded sweatshirt, jeans, and Chuck Taylor All-Stars. He dodges rapper clichés. “I hate rappers,” he’ll later tell me. Makes sense.
Staples is almost certainly smarter than you, and you can feel it, even though he’d never say it and he will in fact vocally insist to the contrary. He moves quickly in conversation, sizing up questions with a bullshit detector more intuitive than Young Thug’s fashion sense. This instinct is reflected in his lyrics, which are playful and poignant. Look at some examples from Prima Donna. On “Big Time”: “They paid me 80K / I put it away for a rainy day / You never know when you gonna catch a case.” On “Prima Donna”: “Think I’m finna pull a Wavves on the Primavera stage / on some prima donna shit, finna throw it all away.” On “Smile”: “I know they hoping that it’s right back to the ghettos I go / I know my pigment is not that of a businessman.”
The words he raps come with a novelist’s confidence, and then while he’s talking with you—always looking you straight in the eye—he rattles off astute observations about art and the internet and race and politics and whatever else happens come up in conversation with total ease. (His credit score is also apparently impeccable.) Then, after saying something profound, he’ll tell you he doesn’t give a shit about it. And you’ll believe him. It’s this approach that sometimes gets him in hot water—last year in a video for TIME and some ensuing tweets, he suggested the 90s were overrated, provoking ire among music fans and a waterfall of thinkpieces—but, again, he doesn’t care. And why should he?
“That shit is corny, bro.” That’s how he describes this type of reaction. Because it is. Here’s another good example: what does Staples think about the recent Eminem and Drake beef that never was? “Let's stop trying to make problems with art. Leave Drake the fuck alone, let Eminem go be a father. Like he’s not a grown-ass man with other things to do. Like he's sitting at home, like, man, I really got these bars for Drake. Shut the fuck up.”
Staples is one of the few rappers now who Gets It. And if you don’t know what that means, that’s fine, because Staples also makes music so good that it transcends any sort of discussion. It’s what makes him feel like one of the few genuine artists we have left.
And despite all this, somehow, Vince Staples is only 23 years old.
Noisey: What are you trying to do with Prima Donna?
Vince Staples: I'm not trying to get nothing across. I'm just making some songs now. Everything has its meaning, but that's open for interpretation. To me at least. I don't believe in telling people what they're listening to. I believe in them being able to figure it out for themselves, 'cause, I know when I was younger, and growing up, I never asked what anything was about. It wasn't like nowadays—just the era and climate we're in is that you put out music and then the artist tells you what it's about, what each song, what each word means, and then you have 50 people on Rap Genius telling you what this is, and what that is. It should be open for interpretation. That's what makes art art. The painting doesn't come with a small placard in the corner to tell you exactly what it's about, and what it is. People still trying to figure out what the Mona Lisa shit is about. No one really knows, but that's what makes things special, just that they can mean something and it belongs to everyone in a different manner.
Your career has really materialized, and especially in the last six, seven months it seems your impact has reached a new high. What has it been like going through that experience?
I honestly don't think about it. At all. I think that's part of the reason why I'm able to do well or whatever, is 'cause I'm not thinking about it. Everything that happens has been kind of pre-planned and mapped out as far as the timing. Either we hit our marks, or we fail. We just haven't reached a point of failure yet, on certain things. Certain things we have, certain things we haven't. It's just about keeping everything in check, keeping yourself in check. You know, it's just music. It's not real life. So that's always a soothing element. It's just fucking songs.
Illustration by Adam Mignanelli
I'm sure that what you're saying is right and accurate—that you don't think about it—but I always find it hard to believe, because, me personally, if I were in that situation—
But it's not necessarily a situation I care about. I never cared about being able to be an artist, or rapper, or musician, none of that shit. A lot of stuff comes from people having certain expectations. I don't have any expectations. Either it works or it don't. So it's not a dream, you know what I mean? People living out their dreams, that applies pressure. It's not necessarily that for me. So I don't have that same pressure of it has to be this and perfect and that. I don't have any dreams of being on the stage or being at the Grammys and things like that that other artists have. I think that alleviates some of the stress or pressure that I'm certain that artists might feel. Because I've never spent a day in my life thinking about doing this.
How do you measure success then?
I don't think you can measure success. It all depends on what you want.
What do you want?
I don't really want nothing, to be honest. I want to be able to take care of my family. That's it. I don't care about anything else.
Is there anything, as an artist, about which you may feel misunderstood?
Nah. I’ve kind of been me for a long time. Being misunderstood is subjective. Can you be misunderstood if you don't care if people understand you? Who needs to be understood? That's such a simple thing, to be understood. But we're not simple, as people, we shouldn't want to be simple.
It comes back to what you were saying earlier about your music and how you don't necessarily want to break things down.
I just got sick of that shit. I been sick of that shit since I did something called “Decoded” on the Life and Times blog. They were like, explain your verse to “Screen Door.” I'm like, what do you mean explain it? I said it. These are words. Each word means each thing, and then you take the things that the words mean, and then you take those meanings, and then you decipher the deeper meaning to it based on how you personally feel. But everything means what it means. "The" means "the." "Cat" means "cat." "Ran" means "ran." "Outside" means "outside." Now, it's up to you to figure out if the cat was scared, if the cat had somewhere to go, if the cat was fed up, if the cat was just happy and felt like running on some Forest Gumpshit. That's up to you to decipher. But we know what happened. The cat ran out-fuckin-side. We need to listen. People don't want to listen; they just want to be told what things are.
Everything feels very literal.
I'll give you two perfect examples directly involving me. I did something with some kind of thing. I forgot who it was with. But Earl (Sweatshirt) and Mac Miller were in it, and then they were like, “oh, Vince doesn't breathe. He has gills, he doesn't breathe.” Kids watched on the internet and said, “Oh, yeah, Vince never takes breaks when he raps! I don't know he has such good breath control.” It's like, motherfucker I have asthma. I don't have good breath control [laughs]. That's a fact. The fact of the matter is, I can't breathe. So if the fact of the matter is I can't breathe, if we're going so much based on what someone else says, then we're ignoring the fact that I'm onstage with an inhaler, you know what I'm saying? Pass that. Earl also once said, “Oh, Vince Staples has never had a bad verse.” Yes I have. Everyone has. And if you say you listen to my music, which I'm sure some of them have, then they know I've had a verse. It's a bad song. So if I say my album is about an experience I had one day at an AutoZone, people would run with that, and not be like, you're wrong.
That would be a headline on so many different blogs.
It's like, you're not smarter than me. I'm not smarter than you. All of our opinions matter just as much. Just because I made it doesn't mean I have the full understanding of it. Somebody might understand you more than you understand yourself. So that's why I want people to listen to the music for themselves and take what they take from it. I read an interview once, somebody said my album is mostly about girls, and I was like, oh, it kinda is when you think about it. I never looked at it like that.
That’s really interesting when the way a listener hears something you made can change the way you think about it.
Because I'm not making it for the sake of being artsy. I just make the songs.
What are your thoughts on what happened this past summer, the whole 90s thing, with your tweets and your comments—
I was right.
Photo by Jason Favreau
And we agreed! But I'm just curious about what your thoughts on blog culture or the internet culture, the cycle of content, and what that's doing, either positively or negatively.
It just is what it is. And the thing about the 90s thing is, we have such an arrogance when it comes to this hip-hop shit for no apparent fucking reason. You can't sit here and tell me that—the conversation wasn’t about the music being good or bad, it was about the effect and the impact on pop culture. You cannot name me one artist in that time period that was bigger, globally, than a 50 Cent or a Kanye West, or—that's when Jay Z got really big, in the 2000s, or Eminem after his album came out in 1999. Lil Bow Wow was playing stadiums with Omarion. That means shit got huge. You get what I'm saying? But we can't be honest with ourselves. I feel like motherfuckers don't care about everything as a whole. They care about their spot in it. So if you were a part of this era, specifically, it's like, oh yeah, this was my shit. I was there, so fuck you. Because I'm important, I'm special. No, you're not, nigga. You're not important. None of us are important. The songs are important. Fuck everybody else.
I don't know who the John Lennon is of this rap shit. I don't know who the Little Richard is. We have these interesting characters, but we shun them. Young Thug does things and says things that make him a musician, a musical figure, in the history of how these people act, how they carry themselves, but we make fun of him, say he's gay.
It just makes no sense to me. If we want to be honest, Eminem is the biggest rapper of all time, possibly. And before Eminem, there were—the conversation started from pop. Spice Girls, Backstreet Boys, NSYNC, all those people. No one alive can name me one rapper that was bigger than the Backstreet Boys, NSYNC, or Spice Girls was in the 90s and mean it. And no one can name an artist bigger than the rappers now, bigger than Kanye West specifically, without it being kind of subjective. You can't name that. The pop star selling the records is married to the Kardashian. He's the biggest one. He's the rock star. He's the biggest artist, to me, in the world. Of course, there's always One Direction, all these type of people, but Kanye has the pop aspect. The people that know One Direction know Kanye. The motherfuckers where I live at don't know who those people are and can't point them out of a lineup, which means that they don't have the same reach.
That's a big deal. These big ass stadiums are a big deal. In the early 2000s it was like, Cash Money was playing arenas. There wasn't an arena show with these 90s dudes, and if it was, I haven't heard about it. We're doing crazy shit now. Drake and Future just fucking played four nights at Madison Square Garden. Let's not pretend this has happened before. 'Cause it hasn't happened before.
Why do you think people are so afraid to—
Because they're not included in what's happening now. It's more so based about what they were doing at that time period. If you were part of this, then you're in it. I'm not comparing music. I don't think you can do that. Because if I listen to certain music from the 80s or 90s, rap music, any genre, it doesn't move me. If I was to listen to certain music from now, it doesn't move me. Does that mean it's not good? Not at all, 'cause who the fuck am I? I'm one person.
But if we're talking about overall influence, Kanye West has a shoe that everybody wears, whether they like his music or not. It is the popular shoe. You see more of those than any Jordan that's been released since that shoe came out. That wasn't possible then, and if it was, it just didn't happen.
In this weird political climate, you’ve become kind of a voice of reason for some people. As you move further in your career, as you make more music and gain more respect, there's gonna be more pressure to accept responsibility or carry—
I do accept my responsibility, but my responsibility is not to anything except the people whose music I can affect with my music. So responsibility comes in what you say, and how you do it, and how you maneuver. All the other stuff is fake. It doesn't matter. You can't feel the pressure. Feel pressure to do what? To be a star? What pressure did Vincent fucking Van Gogh feel? And he's in more books than all the rappers, you get what I'm saying? It's not a real thing. We can choose to be artists, and then we can choose to be socialites, celebrities, social icons, whatever. But being the artist is the easy part. Doing all the other stuff is the hard part, at least in my opinion. And I don't know everything; I'm still young. I don't know what the fuck I'm talking about half the time. But I’ve seen Andre 3000 walking around with no security guards and backpack backstage, looking for me, you know what I mean? And that's one of the highest selling rap albums of all time. And he's perfectly fine. I don't know what kind of pressure he feels. When I see him, he's talking about his son going to school, and wanting to play the drums and things like that.
How did you meet him?
My manager knows everybody. He's been around for a long time. He used to manage De La Soul, so when someone you know wants to talk about some 90s shit, tell him to eat a dick. I have a thesaurus with me at all times. Tell him I say eat a fucking dick. Thesaurus, encyclopedia, dictionary, all of that next to me at all times: Eat a fucking dick.
What do you think about the way our generation comprehends culture—like, for example, the recent Eminem, Drake beef that never was.
When retweets become news.
It's so sad. It's honestly very sad. It shows that we're wasting our lives. We have an era where literally all the information in the world at the fucking tips of your fingers, and we're talking about a potential hip-hop beef. Fuck a hip-hop beef. It's corny. As shit. If you want to watch—go watch Smack. URLTV is the YouTube channel. Go watch King of the Dot. It's there. Go watch some real fucking battles. Let's stop trying to make problems with art. Leave Drake the fuck alone; let Eminem go be a father. Like he’s not a grown-ass man with other things to do. Like he's sitting at home, like, man, I really got these bars for Drake. Shut the fuck up. That shit is corny, bro.
I wonder what Eminem thought of all that.
I doubt he even knows. Eminem had a show with Earl in Europe. He was walking around with the Walkman—no, with the CD player, the foam headphones, and a bag of CDs. He is not on Twitter. Let's just be a hundred percent honest. Eminem probably doesn't even know how much money he actually has. Like, really?
But the motherfuckers on Twitter talking about how we need these five rappers need to collab and make an album, and, who's better at this, this guy's underrated, this guy's trash. Go get a fucking job. You got all this all this time in the world: The Special Olympics happens the same time every year. Go help somebody. Go feed a homeless man with your spare fucking time. You're wasting data. That's an extra 20 dollars on your bill right now, just for talking shit. Go give that to a homeless man, help him get on his feet. It's pathetic. I hate it. And I really think we're wasting an opportunity as a culture and a period of time to do something that we can actually do to help the world. I see it happening in certain capacities, whether it's from the Black Lives Matter situation on Twitter, whether it's people airing motherfuckers out for just being blatantly racist or sexist or homophobic or things like that, with ten, 15, 20 thousand retweets. I see the potential of certain things, but I'm waiting for the people in my sector to do something or say something, and not wait ‘til somebody gets shot by the cops to put the song on iTunes and not give their mother any money. Because that doesn't mean anything to me. At all. So I'm disappointed in a sense, in what we do and what we say and how we interact with one another.
Everyone just has to be who they want to be, and who they are, but I feel like now would be a good time to get our shit together. We want to be treated so equally. It's not just we want music to be on the even playing field with all these other genres, but we still mistreat women, we still openly disrespect gay people for no apparent reason, but we want to be held to the same standard as people who loved Freddie Mercury and loved Elton John and love whatever Morrissey considers himself, because he's an enigma. We want to be held to these same standards as these people, but we have such an ignorance with the things that we display. And I have my examples of it on certain days. I gotta fucking get over certain things that I have that have pigeonholes on me.
It doesn't make any sense to me. Because we're never gonna be treated like that as long as we treat each other like this. We're still talking about, “But this nigga's not real.” Or “Where his bars at?” Or “What's this?” Like, are you serious? This is a genre where if you don't like a certain album, you haven't heard a certain album, someone's not your favorite artist, the response is, oh, fuck you, you can't be a part of this. It's not a boys' club. This is music. And if you have to be a chauvinist or homophobic or hyper-aggressive or super rich or super flashy or super gaudy with your wealth or whatever and just belittle other people, and put yourself on top of the world, and putting people under the ground to be considered hip-hop, they can keep that shit. Because I don't need it and never have and never wanted it. At the end of the day, I'm trying to make music. And that's what I care about.
Eric Sundermann is wondering what CDs Eminem had in his bag. Follow him on Twitter.