On Danny Swain’s newest record Payback, constellations from nearly every corner of the rap universe fall into Danny!’s audio play to star in their roles. Big timers like Pharrell, Bruno Mars and Swizz Beatz lend their talents; non-mainstream vets like El-P and Talib make appearances; neo-boho songstress Janelle Monae sings a hook; even controversial new booties like Tyler and Lil’ B spit verses. All guests are skillfully placed to augment rap’s different lanes only to display how they can easily coexist. By the end you see Payback to be a bitter comedy about the madness of trying to make it as a young rapper in today’s music industry. When it works, Payback is a very enjoyable record that highlights the best that positive introspective rap has to offer. When it doesn’t, it’s a long exercise in big label money and talent creating strange schizo-pop.
One of Payback’s best moments comes early with “Get Up” featuring Talib Kweli. It’s an update on that lush proto-Soulquarian sound that we honestly could use more of now a days. From the other end of the spectrum, swaying with its ’80s sonic sheen and washed out funk groove is the very fun “Hey You”. On this record Tyler and Danny! switch roles and rap to the ladies with the style we’d expect from the other rapper. Even to further entrench the album in its eclectic sound, the boom-bappy “Misunderstood” has Danny!, Asher Roth and Lil’ B addressing why they have such difficult roads to navigate as it relates to their rap style and persona. Oakland legend E-40 even drops by on the smoothed out “Do It All Over Again” to drop game on how he and others have stayed true to rap’s DIY hustle.
Yet, while all the above songs work and don’t sound forced or out of place, Payback has some very lackluster moments. “Speed” is throw-away Pharrell on the beat and hook, which is unfortunate because it’s one of Danny!’s best moments in the booth. “Shit Starters” with a guest list of Swizz, Jim Jones, El-P and Kay Slay is an odd concoction of rap bombast. Lastly, “Keep Your Head To The Sky” is just too much pop-sensibility and words of motivation that it ends up sounding like a modern version of C & C Music Factory.
Even with these misses, Danny! doesn’t not compromise who he is. Though he may be hitting the corners kind of reckless, he stay’s in his lane, and all the guest don’t burry his voice. I could even see a couple of the records like “Evil” and “Little Black Boy” getting some radio play, but that all depends on the label. Even if this record doesn’t pop, Danny! more than states his point that he loves his craft and will do it whether 100 people listen or 1 million. Yes, he’s frustrated and explains his consternation explicitly on “Do It All Over Again”, taking a serious shot at Has-Lo; but what’s rap without some anger and hostility? Poetry at a coffee shop in Portland, that’s what. There is more than enough good music on Payback to keep his fans satisfied, the label optimistic, and his future open and bright.