How to rebound from being the next big thing that never was? That's the central question for Danny Swain on his seventh studio album, Payback. Lauded early on for an expansive vocabulary and a metacritical sense of humor about the hip-hop industry, Swain combined a puckish persona with serious flow, recording under a hipster-inflected, exclamatory moniker that reads like an Aziz Ansari joke. But he never managed a proper commercial breakthrough, and various industry slights are the subject of his latest effort. Swain has woven all the truisms of DIY hip-hop into a concept album that highlights his virtuosic ventriloquism: What he lacks in style, he recoups with a smirk, an allusive sensibility, and a self-awareness that proves irresistible.
Serving as sole producer, Swain generates agile beats to bolster the album's twin narratives: one, his own, and the other, that of a doppelganger who strays into dangerous criminality. In this vein, he follows Eminem, an admitted early influence from whom Swain learned to keep verses rolling by using glottal consonants as breathless connectors—a technique that keeps him sounding like an amalgam between Marshall Mathers and Jay-Z. Like Em, Swain knows that it's best to do verses as paragraphs rather than scattered couplets (though ideally the couplets should be dynamite too), and his facility with the pen is shown to best effect on "Myintrotoletuknow": "Since I been in this drama/I've talked to these kids and their momma/I am Barack Obama/So I split my sentence with commas." Swain's beats cull various pop idioms with conspicuous abandon: Traces of '60s French pop surface here and there, as do mellow guitar arpeggios (a background favored by 2Pac in his heyday) alongside heavier, more distorted rock riffs. "Speed," a runaway lyrics train, rides on Pharrell-style woodwind atmospherics, and related flute motifs underpin "Misunderstood," a puff-puff-pass track if ever there was one. Amber Rose appears on "Evil," and Swizz Beatz makes two welcome appearances, as the album moves from Danny's childhood ("Little Black Boy") to his nascent naughty habits ("Shit Starters"), celebrity stalkers ("Go That-a-Way"), and something approaching mature introspection ("Do It All Over Again").
Throughout the disc, guest verses or no, Swain raps with a conversational forthrightness that conjures both Q-Tip and Jigga himself, whose number, Swain never fails to remind us, he has on speed dial. Some rappers grind out voices meant to be distinctive rather than expressive; Swain prioritizes lyrics over self-conscious stylization and has an equal enthusiasm for knob-spinning. Put another way, he's a polymath and a words guy, two reasons he so often sounds like various other rappers. (In the album's silliest moments, Afroman comes to mind.)
The production is undeniably savvy, full of nice, pop-wise moments (cf. the Bobby McFerrin send-up in "Myintroletuknkow" and the tuneful outro to "Even Louder") befitting a rapper who acknowledges a deep fondness for the Beatles. But there are few earworms to be found here, nothing as catchy as 2008's "The Groove," and that seems to be the point: Swain's proclamation on Payback is that he's an album artist, not a singles hack. Lyrically, Swain brings it, and the album's conceptual structure is sturdy enough to support nearly 90 minutes of nimble versification. But the Danny-as-maligned-hero trope is bound to wear thin pretty soon. As Swain reminds us on "Do It All Over Again": "To reiterate/Jay co-signed him/Questo groomed him/System boomin'/Thanks for tunin' in." That, in a nutshell, is the Danny Swain myth, and he tells it well. The success of his next album will depend on whether Swain can apply the same verbal dexterity and sly beats to a subject other than his own undeserved obscurity.