Swizz Beatz: Poison Album Review
“It’s a difference between a beatmaker and a producer,” producer Swizz Beatz said, in a recent interview with Mass Appeal. “I’m not calling you to just jump on something. No, we’re producing here, this is the concept, I’mma put you on this ... Put this here, do that there, say this line instead of that line ... It’s levels to it.” The implication is that a producer is hands-on where a beatmaker is not, and has a greater impact on the song’s direction without necessarily playing on it, in an almost advisory role. That seems to be an important caveat for his new album, Poison, which bills him as a lead artist despite the fact that he rarely raps and made only half the beats.
Poison was culled from a massive backlog and whittled into a curated rap relic. It was made in a series with four other projects: an R&B album, an “energy” album for “motivation,” an “acoustics” album that’s “just vibes” and “for Sundays,” and a “global” album featuring international artists. There was an early version of this album that featured Kanye West, Bono, and Bruno Mars, but a change of direction led him to pick these 10 songs out of 70 to make what he called the “East Coast Chronic.”
For what it’s worth: Poison isn’t East Coast Chronic, or even close. That album was helmed by two titans at the peak of their powers delivering under colossal stakes. This one has far less vision, less focus, and no stakes whatsoever. It isn’t essential or transcendent. But the album doesn’t have to invoke the authority of one of hip-hop’s greatest monuments ever to be produced effectively and full of defining moments. Where else can you find Young Thug tighten up and barrel through the fidgety MPC programming of AraabMUZIK, or hear 2 Chainz two-step and swagger for Bink? The characters shuffling through these songs are worth following, thanks in large part to Swizz stepping back and letting the guests star, playing the role of director more than performer.
With his 2007 solo debut, One Man Band Man, Swizz Beatz cosplayed as a rap star that, for some reason, almost exclusively rapped about being a rich producer. (His attempts to rap about anything else were disastrous.) The idea that Swizz could do it all himself as a rap Swiss army knife was put to bed rather quickly. After more than a decade to reflect on that, Swizz has learned from his mistakes. His mic time declines exponentially from his first album to this one, with him mostly punching in for his typical hypeman duties or for a freestyled mini-verse or two. Those moments are still cringy but not insufferable, going on only long enough to be noticed and not long enough to become a nuisance.
Some of the hooks he performs can get irksome—one chorus is literally just him counting to 10—but he largely stays out of the way, negotiating space for the rappers he wrangled to flex on his behalf. It’s fitting that a man who puts a premium on the power of producing doesn’t seem to be above producing himself, which means limited exposure. He understands being the most prominent voice on the album won’t make it a good one.
With “producing” as the directive, Swizz treats Poison as an outlet for the artists he features without letting the inmates run the asylum. He leads each of them into a space where they’ll be most comfortable, which usually causes them to provide flashes of their signature stuff. After flipping “Special Delivery” into a Lil Wayne slapper (for Tha Carter V’s “Uproar”), Swizz pushes Weezy to find the ceiling of his gun metaphors for “Pistol on My Side”; his free-associative bars are reminiscent of a hungrier Wayne. Swizz gets Pusha T, the amoral dope dealer, to consider the way drugs ravaged communities on “Cold Blooded”: “Broken black homes is the modern slavery/You can’t raise a savage and deny the rabies,” Push raps, a rare glimpse of morality from him this decade.
Rappers of yore sound refreshed in his hands. Swizz draws Nas away from the Ye-induced bombast of his self-titled mini-album and ushers him back into a narrative space, where he uses that project-window vision to eulogize the old New York, and the producer gets the best verses out of Jim Jones since the Bush administration. He lets Jadakiss and Styles P reenact their longstanding call-and-response partnership with wondrous results (“Cartel ties and dope bars/Life is a movie and death is the co-star”) as Kendrick wakes the neighbors (“Something Dirty/Pic Got Us”). It isn’t just that everybody gets to do what they do best, it’s that he puts them in positions to make it so.
If nothing else, Poison is a shrine to the art of producing. Swizz’s fingerprints are all over it and the rappers who serve under him here are better for having felt his influence. At a lean 32 minutes, the album is nearly filler free and full of well-executed teamwork. No one will be adding Swizz Beatz to the pantheon of all-time rapper-producers anytime soon, but that’s not the point. In stark contrast to One Man Band Man, the album is not in service of Swizz, or some misguided solo rap aspirations, but in service of elevating others and realizing the power of collaboration.