Album cover of the year, anyway
During his first wave of success, I basically couldn’t stand Swizz Beatz. That rule had exceptions: “Ruff Ryders Anthem,” “What Y’all Want.” Most of the time, though, his jacked-up atonal synth-runs and clumsy drum-sputters felt like sandpaper on my brain. In these pages, Sasha Frere-Jones once called Swizz “a guy road-testing his Casio presets at the Nuremberg Rally,” and that about covered it for me. Those beats had riled-up adrenaline, but that was all they had. What little melody you’d hear on Swizz tracks invariably came from unbelievably cheap-sounding synth-plinks, and everything was EQed for maximum impact, never leaving room for quiet-to-loud dynamics or organic lift. Timbaland and the Neptunes, both Swizz’s contemporaries, understood how to use the same synthetic ingredients to build spacy epics and sticky hooks; Swizz only did cheap grandeur. A few years later, though, I came to appreciate the ugly assaultive aspects of the man’s work. A track like “Money Cash Hoes” or “WW III” could take those thin sonics and use them for serious angry bombast, turning his emotionless grandeur into a virtue rather than a liability. And Swizz got better and better at harnessing and directing his assaultive chaos; by the time he got around to hooking up Yung Wun’s “Tear It Up” and T.I.’s “Bring Em Out,” he was churning out straight-up bangers as consistently as any other elite producer. It took a while, but he finally justified his status. In some ways, Swizz was ahead of his time; virtually everything he ever made was geared primarily toward clubs, and his emaciated synth-sounds anticipated ringtone-rap a couple of years early. These days, he’s one of my favorite rap producers; songs like Beyonce’s “Get Me Bodied” and Eve’s “Tambourine” jump out immediately by bringing a sort of furious kinetic motion that’s virtually missing from rap and R&B these days. UGK’s “Hit the Block” might be a bonus-track on Underground Kingz, but it’s not because it can’t hang with the rest of the album but because its handclaps-and-sirens attack couldn’t have been more at odds with Pimp C’s slow bluesy crawl. Swizz could’ve shot his progress all to hell when he decided to start rapping, but he effectively camouflaged his plentiful shortcomings on “It’s Me Bitches,” turning an incoherent rant into one of the year’s great club-rap anthems. “Money in the Bank” followed the same blueprint and pulled similarly great things out of it, and suddenly we were faced with the unlikely prospect of a really great Swizz Beatz solo album, a nonstop eruption of nervous energy. But then, last week, this song with Chris Martin from Coldplay came out, and now I’m not sure about anything anymore.
Coldplay gets a lot of shit, but I’m actually not particularly mad at the idea of Chris Martin on a rap record. At their best, Coldplay have a sort of epic melodic sweep that could mesh really well with, say, T.I. when he’s in confessional self-torture mode. “Beach Chair” might’ve felt like a purpose-free ramble, but Martin’s chorus had a really nice wispy prettiness to it. Also, this isn’t exactly rap, but it did sound pretty fucking beautiful when Timbaland sampled “Clocks” for that one Brady song. I’d rather see Martin become the Nate Dogg of sensitive whiteboy hook-machines than, say, John Mayer. Still, I was really skeptical when Swizz first said something about Martin appearing on his solo album, since their respective strengths have nothing to do with each other. Swizz does crude spatters of adrenaline, Martin does clean and elegiac symphony-pop, and those two areas have absolutely zero Venn-diagram overlap. A collaboration between the two would have to sound something like Bryan Ferry singing for the Circle Jerks; it just didn’t make any sense. Well, Martin doesn’t actually turn up on “Part of the Plan.” Instead, Swizz just samples Coldplay’s “X&Y,” which isn’t even a good Coldplay song. At this point, I wouldn’t be all that surprised to learn that Swizz had never actually met Chris Martin. (What would they even talk about? Stubble maintenance?) As it stands, “Part of the Plan” is almost a parody of the obligatory ghetto-childhood ballad, and all of Swizz’s limitations as a rapper become torturously obvious. He could’ve stolen his lyrics from an eighth-grade girl’s poetry book (“I wish I could fly away on a unicorn / I’m from the ghetto, and every day a human’s born,” eesh), and his delivery is as flat and mumbly and fake-sensitive as you’d fear. Musically, it’s just unbelievably awkward; Swizz is content to lazily throw some synth-bass and echoey handclaps under Martin’s piano arpeggios. How in the hell did Swizz get from “It’s Me Bitches” to this?
Actually, it’s pretty obvious how Swizz got there. He’s about to release a big-budget big-name rap album, and every big-budget big-name rap album apparently has to have one of these sensitive emo tracks, even if the rapper in question is singularly ill-equipped to write a song like that. Honestly, the biggest problem facing the idea of the circa-07 rap album is the supposed importance of versatility. Every rapper tries to cover his bases by writing songs that fit predetermined blueprints: the rap&b love-song, the high-energy club-track, the violent street-banger, etc. There are very, very few rappers who can execute all those ideas with any sort of success; even UGK struggle with it a bit on Underground Kingz. Swizz is extremely good at one very particular thing, and up until now, all the leaked tracks from One Man Band Man have worked because they’ve been so totally focused on that one thing. But “Part of the Plan” is a huge leap in the opposite direction, a fuzzy-headed detour into an idiom in which Swizz is totally, totally lost. I suppose he should be commended for taking chances, but he should’ve known better than to let anyone hear the hideous result. “Part of the Plan” is a cautionary tale, and I hope other rappers learn from its example. Great records are a whole lot more likely to happen when rappers stick with what they’re good at then when they half-heartedly venture out into the unknown.