Why does hip-hop need Swizz Beatz’s new album?
Several reasons, but the most urgent is that our narrative must change. Hip-hop remains the greatest voice and mirror for the disenfranchised. Living African-American is more insane than ever. In many ways, it’s disturbingly consistent. There is too much governmental subterfuge and black body hunting in the hood for hip-hop to be this high off of the irrelevant. This is why, on his latest opus, the man born Kaseem “Swizz Beatz” Dean chose to exclude the pop mammoths he often records with (Bono, Jay-Z), instead letting the People’s Champs smack awake a demographic doped up on fake news and social media mirages. He titled his opus Poison because his people have made a daily diet out of the unhealthy––the unreal.
Real would certainly not be an apt adjective to identify this year in black music. Summer 2018 hip-hop, especially, was egregiously self-absorbed. Drake remained in his feelings, Nicki Minaj couldn’t get out of her own way, and most of the new R&B acts can’t see past the mirror or person they’re facing. Similar to earlier this decade, when the south’s “lean” wave chanted through Atlanta’s music, many of the year’s releases hit nationwide speakers with forged pill prescriptions. We are currently living in the age of “Opioid Rap.” The problem is, other than Jay and Bey, the elders in general haven’t stepped in to change the channel and remind the young, scared and medicated that they are both heard and of value. Instead, Kanye West remained a bipolar moth to his own fame.
In fact, Kanye’s towering presence oppressed us so much (our choice, obvi) that many forgot his finest work this year arrived in May. Pusha T’s Daytona was impeccable; it’s been a minute since Ye’ gave us a consecutive seven tracks of soul food. But after a blitz of overblown G.O.O.D releases and tabloid distractions, the best of the bunch got eclipsed. So what does Swizz do? He makes Daytona’s eighth song and puts it on his album; gives Push some callous upright bass play and encourages him to rub America’s nose in its own piss. (“Can’t raise a savage and deny the rabies”). EGHCK, indeed.
This album’s greatest gift may be redemption. Not predominantly for West, but specifically, and most importantly, for his collaboration with Nas. It’s the prerogative of Esco stans and creatures of the moment to disagree, but any objective fan with respectable rap taste is aware that, on Nasir, Esco sounded more geriatric than illmatic. There’s good news, though: On Poison’s “Echo,” the Half-Man Half-Amazing sidesteps a deciduous fate and rises like a Phoenix Sun from the free-throw line. No bulls**t––Queensbridge’s King backstrokes through waves of melodic instrumentation for three––that’s right, three––cinematic verses that will scrunch faces and inspire palm emojis with brilliance like “Been an observatory of murder stories since I was a shorty.” It trumps every song on Nasir. Credited to Mr. Dean, the focus can stray away from divorce court and custody blame games and return to the legacy of a scribe who once bragged about socking Jesus and breathing with a sniper’s breathe.
For an album so anti-establishment, “Pistol on My Side (POMS)” is the ideal first single. So fire, it may win Swizzy a round at a future beat battle. Not only does “POMS” remind music artists (and execs) that commercial confines on a lead song are more unnecessary than ever (proven by its video garnering over 100K impressions in the first 48 hours), but, moreover, that Mixtape Weezy still lives––that in spite of the ball-and-chain that is Cash Money Records, Lil Wayne maintains the same rare form exhibited on his annihilation of Jay-Z’s “Run This Town” instrumental and guest spot on A$AP Rocky’s “M’$”. It’s a challenge not to be overwhelmed by a track that should make the NRA proud, but it’s Tunechi’s semi-automatic bars that pose the greatest threat.
“Pistol only side, I’m talkin’ bout the armored kind/
‘Cita, that’s my moms, only have her and Father Time/
Pistol on my side, you don’t wanna hear it harmonize/
Numbers don’t lie, The Number One Stunna’, never mind.”
Yup, Birdman gets popped. Gotta love it.
You’ll also love the older Swizz Beatz. 40-year-old Monsta may be his best version. “Showtime” is historically the common denominator of his music, but on his Poison, he impressively remains the album’s solar power while keeping the spotlight on his guests. It’s a wonderful balance between music director and band leader. And the result is his finest body of work. Although he refrained from commercial attempts, he and 2 Chainz just may have a hit with “Stunt;” he Quincy Jones’d Young Thug and Jim Jones towards career solo performances; also connected The LOX and Kendrick Lamar to spark arson on both coasts (“Something Dirty/Pick Got Us.”).
In alignment with his dedication to introducing new black artists via his No Commission and The Dean Collection activism, Swizz delivers some very fresh produce for our eyes and ears. For the latter, there’s spoken word scribe and sorceress Aine Zion’s piercing intro, English rapper Giggs’ salute to dancehall legend Tiger, and J. Cole assuming a co-Executive Producer role, growing Dreamville and his stock as a label owner with vision. Then there’s the album art––the creation of a Swizz favorite, Cleon Peterson, the Seattle artist hailed for his striking depictions of political violence: red and black only, screaming about the chaos and interminable psychological duress chained to living in both America and brown skin.
Hip-hop is certainly more mental health conscious than ever. But there are times when I’m not exactly sure if we’re aware of our own complicity in our poor health. Poison allows listeners to drink their cognac, pop pills, get that doe, get head––Lord knows anyone under a minority’s stress needs a release–––but what the album also messages is that we can’t rest too often on a windy mountain climb and expect progress. We also can’t afford for our most influential orators to live in their narcissism. Not when rap fans are being killed because a white woman cried wolf in a Walmart or they were simply seated in their own living room. So although its initial release date came and went with July, Swizz Beatz’s new album is right on time.
Colored people’s time, that is.
(Photo: John Lamparski/FilmMagic)