The 50th birthday of hip-hop has largely been a brilliant celebration of this culture we all live and love, and fellow rap nerds have lapped up as much coverage, debate, and performances dedicated to celebrating the artists who have built it all. The thing is, two years ago there was a prominent announcement, a key part of the celebrations, signaling ten producers would release 5-track EPs because five multiplied by ten equals fifty. Last year, we received the first EP, with DJ Premier providing his five songs. As a surprise to nobody, it was dope!
The only other EP that surfaced was Swizz Beatz’ effort, back in April. There was a nine-month wait between these projects, and with no sign of a third, it looks like the project was aborted. The problem with choosing Swizz Beatz for an assignment like this is he’s not really considered a great producer. He’s had plenty of hits, but hip-hop fans largely dismiss him when it comes to listing out their favorites. On the contrary, he played a key part in popularising the Ruff Ryders and DMX, with an emphasis on keyboards and synth sounds, instead of sampling soul and funk. It’s not everybody’s cup of tea, but it was immensely popular and I can’t lie, Swizz did make some of my favorite DMX tracks. And “Top Down” from Grand Theft Auto IV – an irritating song on its own, remains a firm favorite when you’re fleeing from the cops in a videogame.
I’m not going to cover all of Swizz Beatz’s previous work, because his catalog is deep, but listening to “Hip Hop Vol. 2” reminds me of all the times he ruined good albums. As soon as you hit play, you’re greeted by the chick from Alvin and the Chipmunks, and Nas. It’s this combination of one great thing, and one terrible thing, that has often derailed his reputation.
Lil’ Wayne over Swizz Beatz on “This Shit Right Here” feels more celebratory, if only because it feels like mixtape Wayne messing about. That’s a part of hip-hop history that was significant, so hearing Swizz Beatz rolling out one of his 2008-sounding productions, and having Weezy clowning around for a couple of minutes is actually better than it sounds. Something Swizz does do well is put his Casio keyboard spin on classic drum breaks. “Take ‘Em Out” is a solid celebration that fits the assignment, assembling Jadakiss, Benny the Butcher, and new talent Scar Lip onto a rowdy cipher sewn together by classic Onyx and DMX adlibs. Scar Lip takes her opportunity and runs with it, posting up a Verse of the Year contender.
“City Sound Like” and “Say Less” pander to the nightclub scene, but fall short of approaching the heights of classic Swizz Beatz, mainly because the emcees featured are entirely forgettable. Jay Electronica closes out the EP with “Khalas”, but the production is all over the place. Some of the lyrics are too, as Jay cites “it’s the God and Nasty Nas, It Ain’t Hard to Tell, now runaway”, unclear whether this was initially a verse for the Nas track “Runaway”, or if it’s in direct reference to the first song on the EP. To be honest, it may just be Jay Electronica doing Jay Electronica.
The issue with “Hip-Hop 50 Vol. 2” is that Swizz Beatz and his style of instrumentals haven’t aged as well as the likes of Premier. It’s why he struggled to navigate the late 2000s, and it’s why this selection of tracks with some of the biggest names in hip-hop history ultimately falls short. The Scar Lip performance on “Take ‘Em Out” is an essential listen, but the rest of this celebration is like attending a party where the guestlist doesn’t live up to the billing. Grab a slice of cake, salute hip-hop, and then bounce.