Born and raised in Long Beach, California, Vince Staples is a rapper and songwriter whose debut album Summertime ’06 (2015) met with critical acclaim. Staples has been affiliated with Cutthroat Boyz and Odd Future, and collaborated with Ghostface Killah, Earl Sweatshirt, Mac Miller, Common, No ID and Teyana Taylor. He has been recording since 2011, and has released five mixtapes and EPs, most notably Hell Can Wait (2014). Staples recently released his second EP Prima Donna, which debuted with an accompanying short film, and features A$AP Rocky and Kilo Kish.
Kilo Kish is the stage name of musician, artist and fashion designer Lakisha Kimberly Robinson. A graduate of the Fashion Institute of Technology, Kilo Kish released her debut EP Homeschool in 2012. Her mixtape K+ released in 2013, paired with a homemade zine, and her second EP Across released in 2013 in conjunction with Maison Kitsune. Kilo Kish has collaborated with the likes of Childish Gambino, Star Slinger, SBTRKT, A$AP Ferg, Earl Sweatshirt, Matt Martians, Vince Staples and Chet Faker. Her debut album, Reflections in Real Time, released earlier this year.
Long Beach native and rapper Vince Staples opens his newest EP, Prima Donna, by singing “This Little Light of Mine” with such weariness that his vocals are barely audible. As he finishes with “let it shine,” a gunshot cuts through. This broken lullaby recalls the opening track of his 2015 debut album Summertime ’06, situated in Staples’ childhood neighborhood of Ramona Park and challenging racism, injustice and its violent fallout on the streets. Prima Donna showcases a surprising variety of production styles without sacrificing Staples’ raw integrity and lyricism, focusing in on the new pressures of his celebrity.
The seven-track EP is accompanied by a short film in which Staples spirals through a fever dream to Prima Donna’s songs—a strange cab ride to a hotel is punctuated by hallucinations of fame, including African dancers, priests, paparazzi and crowds of fans banging down the walls of his room. The theme of ‘Is it real?’ similarly appears throughout the album—from Staples going crazy “at the Marriott having Kurt Cobain dreams” to “Smile” on which he repeats, “sometimes I feel like giving up,” so many times it begins to feel like a mantra. Pulling from life without sparing the good, the grim or his confusion about it, Staples’ subversion is in crafting genuinely catchy music while speaking truth to power; it’s where his preternatural talent is sharpest.
A$AP Rocky features on Prima Donna’s title track and longtime friend and collaborator Kilo Kish lends her vocals to “Loco.” Kilo Kish talks with Staples about the strange realities of fame, returning to his hometown of Long Beach and why he never dreamt of being a rapper.
Kilo Kish: I met you a really long time ago—the first time I tried to make music, you happened to be in the studio that same day. When did you start making music?
Vince Staples: Six months before I met you, around the same time.
KK: What projects were you working on at that time?
VS: I didn’t really have a project. I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do and how I was going to do it, learning the basics. For me, it was figuring out how to start making something. There’s a lot that goes into taking your creative thought process and trying to get it out to other people. That’s when the hard work and the practice come in. And that’s what I didn’t have at that time, so I looked at everything to figure out how to translate it from my head to a piece of paper to another person. It’s a three-step process.
KK: It was a little bit nerve-wracking being at a real studio in the midst of other artists, but having you and Matt [Martians] there was helpful. He gives you that confidence in the beginning to trust your gut and your own creativity.
VS: Those people [early on] are the only reason I’m able to do what I’m doing today. That environment gave me the confidence and the assertiveness to get my craft to the level it needed to be, so I could become successful. Matt said that I used my circumstances as an excuse. He’d say, “If you want to be okay, you have to be able to do it.” He put it in my head that [working on music] was my only option, which it honestly was, and I needed it at the time. It drove me.
I would look at my friends and people I knew,
and I just couldn’t drink 40s and
end up getting fucked over in the long run.
— Vince Staples
KK: Give me the picture of your home life at that time: where you were, how old you were, all of that. What made it seem so dire?
VS: I was about to turn 18. I wasn’t in trouble. I had already escaped the urban situation and all that shit because I was old enough to be done with it. I was trying to get a job, but I couldn’t and didn’t really know what I was going to do with my life. I knew that my momma wasn’t going to be able to take care of me anymore. All that piled up. I would look at my friends and people I knew, and I just couldn’t drink 40s and end up getting fucked over in the long run.
KK: In your subject matter—and I wonder about this for rappers in general—why is there so much about where you come from, Long Beach?
VS: A lot of time, for black males in general, it’s because we don’t know who we are. You’re told, “You are a product of your environment.” A lot of times all you are is where you come from. For instance, Eminem and Detroit, Jay-Z and Brooklyn, Dr. Dre and Compton. No matter how much or little they talk about it, that is who they are. In my opinion, you are your environment. Nine times out of 10, if your surroundings aren’t that good or up to par with the American Dream, it keeps you down. If you can look outside of your environment, you might feel like you can surpass what your environment might be.