I can’t recommend Payback to lovers of hip-hop enough. Its reverence for classic-era hip-hop, from the “Myintrotoletuknow” sample on “Silly Me” to the “Guess Who’s Back” reference on “Little Black Boy”, which occur in just the first three tracks and are cleverly referential without pandering to a crowd that might prefer those eras, is probably enough of a selling point. That sort of stuff is scattered throughout Payback, and as an album it’s notable for its reverence of hip-hop as an artistic platform. In an age when everyone’s got a mixtape to peddle and a Twitter account to keep an eye on, hip-hop’s become easy to engage commercial and social platforms. But it also seems in some ways to be growing further and further away from a music available for critical discourse, which puts Danny!’s Payback in a hard place. After all, on the surface it’s a highly enjoyable album on its sonics alone, but there is an entirely other thing to say about the depth with which Danny! laces his tracks. After all, “Silly Me” introduces the album with, again, that quick “Myintrotoletuknow” reference before diving into Eli Porter, Brick Squad, Jay-Z, Kanye West, Fabolous, and Rakim references within a minute and a half. As much as Payback is a joy to listen to on its surface level as so much of rap continues to be, it’s easy to wonder how much of the album’s more subversive elements could slip between the cracks at a time when the market behaves as though there’s simply no time or need for inspective ears.
Appetitive as Danny! is for hip-hop as nutrition, Payback is also an album acutely aware of the value hip-hop places on co-signs. Danny’s gathered quite a who’s who of veterans and hypebeasts for his major label debut, ranging from Tyler the Creator and Lil’ B to E-40 and Pharrell. This is another area where Payback asks its listeners to play along somewhat because those who’ve avoided or missed Danny! to this point aren’t going to pick up on the loose but important storytelling checkpoints that have led Charm towards And I Love H.E.R. towards this conclusion of a somewhat linear album trilogy. Those aware of Danny!’s vision will understand the superfluous, back-prodding nature of some of these artists’ appearances but others will be confused why some of these guests don’t feel like the lynch pins for a track’s existence the way they so often do on similarly bedazzled major label releases. All of the guests have their moments but it’s ostensibly Danny!’s show, and some of the more ominous guest stars actually take a while to become as noticeable as the lead player. This album definitely isn’t one for simply enjoying one track after another and adding your favorites to the iPod. While it’s certainly open to that interpretation — especially when tracks like “Little Black Boy”, “Evil” and “I Don’t Wanna Hear That Shit” feel so easily separable from the pack — to do so would be a disservice to an album that aims for much more than iPod shuffle fodder.
Concluding his trilogy, Danny! has finally achieved a certain standard of hip-hop success and is forced to contemplate the costs by which he achieved this moment. He addresses these things head on, creating a remarkably accessible album on its surface and one which constantly questions itself for existing on its deeper layers. Without reading Danny!’s insightful self-examination at Mostly Junk Food, it’s also entirely possible that self-indulgent explorations like “Phonte”, a spoof on Eminem’s manager-titled skits from the late ’90s, and “Shit Starters”, a Dipset clowning that replaces Cam’ron with Danny! and Juelz Santana with El-P (Jim Jones gloriously retained), could very easily go over less tuned-in listeners’ heads as a sort of typical rap indulgence. But once you’ve attuned yourself to Danny!’s vision, his flights of fancy are more like pieces of a very unique, quizzical puzzle that is Danny!’s life as a hip-hop fan. Perhaps the best example of Danny!’s charm and intelligence as an artist is his monologue on “Do It All Again”. While it feels a little out of place being that a number of tracks follow it, like Kanye West and Fashawn before him Danny! takes a timeout to explain exactly how he came to Payback from his humble beginnings, both enriching listeners to his frustrating initiation into Hip-Hop As Big Business and to the greater narrative of the album proper, as he recounts many of the album’s subjects in more candid detail. His honesty and candor on the LP are constantly refreshing and it’s actually really nice to have a track where it all comes together, especially with the added bonus of E-40’s verse, which is basically an established legend of thirty years telling a young guy why the struggle is so worth it.
The release of Payback has remained a bit of a confusing issue in the weeks and months since it was initially slated for release. As of this writing you won’t be able to find a place to purchase it and as of its publishing I’m not so sure you’ll be able to find one, either. But in a way, much like Blu’s NoYork!, this only makes Payback‘s credibility more apparent, as Danny! wanted to make an album that scoffed in the face of all the industry types who’ve made his career as a rapper so bafflingly difficult, succeeded, and now faces the same hip-hop-only political struggles he’s dealt with his entire career. But if/when Payback does see the fluorescent lighting of record stores, or finds its way across the net to an iTunes or Bandcamp URL, one thing that’s entirely certain is those who come across it will have come across one of the year’s great dialogues on the state of the rap industry and the state of Danny Swain. With any luck, it won’t be the last we hear from this talented and, even more important to my ears, brutally honest rapper.