An interesting new wrinkle in rap history: Rappers don’t sound like they’re in control anymore. That sense of cool, of composure, has been a crucial part of rap stardom for about as long as I can remember. It’s what always set Jay-Z apart: that sense of regal haughtiness, of knowing he was richer and tougher and smarter than anyone else in the room. That was something that Jay did a better job conveying than any of his contemporaries. Biggie asserted dominance in a different way, through loud-bark bluster. 50 Cent came off more like a feared playground bully, pointing and laughing at everyone else. DMX and 2Pac were both emotional, in different ways, but they used that as a way of projecting strength. The genuine out-of-control livewires, the Ol’ Dirty Bastards of the world, were the exception. These days, they’re the rule. Rappers are using their music to talk about depression and desolation and feelings of unworthiness. Their music is exploding in all these different directions. Part of what’s impressive about Lil Uzi Vert or Travis Scott or even Kendrick Lamar is the way they seem to be living inside their own heads — the way they seem like they could fly off the rails at any point. That change of focus isn’t even a good thing or a bad thing, necessarily; it’s just different. But for those of us who remember how it used to be, it’s still thrilling to hear a rapper displaying absolute icy calm. And that’s where Payroll Giovanni comes in.
For more than a decade, Payroll has been the de facto frontman for Doughboyz Cashout, a Detroit street-rap institution who built up a Midwestern cult fanbase but never did much beyond that. Doughboyz Cashout were always good for coldly impressive tough-guy music. But it’s on his own that Payroll has really grabbed me. The 2016 mixtape Big Bossin, Vol. 1 was, at least for me, Payroll’s breakout moment. Teaming up with the producer Cardo, Payroll embraced the sound of hard-slapping ’90s West Coast rap music, all precise piano lines and vocoder burps and big, nasty handclaps. That sound, it turned out, was perfect for Payroll, who responded with drug-talk so specific and clinical that it reached rarefied heights of no-bullshit hardness. And if anything, the brand-new Big Bossin, Vol. 2 only improves on that first tape. It’s a burst of frosty, mean crime-talk that feels especially bracing in an era when rap has turned toward gooey insularity.
Payroll is an elegant writer, one capable of casually tossing off an aphorism that sounds like hard-earned wisdom: “Everybody ballin’ till it’s time to pay the tab / And everybody bosses till it’s time to pay the staff / Man!” It’s that man! that drives it home. Payroll sounds disgusted at the level of halfassed balling happening around him, and I haven’t heard anyone since late-’00s Pusha T give off that level of disdain so economically and eloquently. Opening track “Rapped My Way” lays out the whole narrative: Payroll’s an ex-dealer who got too good at dealing, who knew that nothing good would happen if he stayed in the game. So he turned to rap, applying the same skills and knowledge he’s learned in the streets. It’s an old story, but Payroll tells it well and makes it feel real: “I’m from Detroit, where it’s hard to get your music heard at / So we say fuck it, now where the pounds and the birds at?”
There’s not a whole lot of expression in the way Payroll raps, but he’s not a flat technician, either. His persona is the guy who has no time to waste and who tells you what he needs to tell you in as few words as possible. He can imply a full lifetime’s worth of stories in a single line: “If I was born a square, my life would be simple / But my idols move squares and pounds and pack pistols.” He can outline a worldview in even less: “Never respect the leeches, I respect the Big Meeches.” And in Cardo’s lushly minimal beats, he can put all that weathered experience on beautiful display.
Cardo is one of the most exciting producers working today. Right now, he’s got his first-ever #1 as one of the four credited producers on Drake’s “God’s Plan.” And that kind of gothic, bottom-heavy trap music comes to Cardo easily; the hammering orchestral bombast of Migos’ “Deadz” is one of my favorite beats of the past few years. But that’s not the sound that Cardo brings to his work with Payroll Giovanni. Instead, Cardo immerses himself in the shimmering melodies and computer-bass gurgle of ’90s G-funk. Big Bossin’, Vol. 2 is a shorter, more focused effort than the first Big Bossin’, and because it’s a major-label album rather than a mixtape, Cardo can’t do things like interpolate old Janet Jackson hits. The added focus is good for him; he’s created these sunnily bleak bangers that make Payroll’s voice hit with all the mean swagger of prime Too Short. Together, Payroll and Cardo embrace these older sounds, but they do it with such a sense of immediacy and mastery that they don’t come off as revivalists. They’re merely anomalies, men out of time. It’s good to have them around.
1. Bhad Bhabie – “Hi Bich (Remix)” (Feat. MadeinTYO, Rich The Kid, & Asian Doll)
The brattiness is just transcendent. It’s colossal, monumental. Is there any way for Iggy Azalea to come back from this? From being eviscerated by a tiny child? (Also: “Now the blogs handing out praises.” Is that a subliminal at me? A positive subliminal?)
2. Tee Grizzley – “Colors”
Our young king of strenuous, effortful, everything-at-stake rap strikes again. With Meek Mill in prison, we need Grizzley to continue flourishing.
3. A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie – “Somebody” (Feat. Don Q)
A Boogie’s secret is that he already sounds like a star, even if he isn’t one yet. You need to be a star to pull of that sort of flossy, melodious shit-talk, and he pulls it off. The yin-and-yang dynamic between silky A Boogie and hardhead Don Q continues to pay off.
4. Rae Sremmurd – “T’d Up”
As a first single from a forthcoming triple album, this just isn’t going to work. But as a ray of eerie, incandescent swagger in a catalog that’s already full of tracks just like it, it’ll do the job. Swae Lee’s falsetto is going to some beautiful places, even when it’s only a quick ad-lib at the end of the song, as the beat rides out.
5. Apathy – “I Keep On” (Feat. Pharoahe Monch)
What, you’re too cool to hear a new Pharoahe Monch verse over a new Pete Rock beat? No. You’re not. You’re not too cool.
IT WAS ALL GOOD JUST A WEEK AGO
This is the most swagless video I’ve ever seen. pic.twitter.com/Zq2s59ambn
— Phillip Barnett (@regularbarnett) February 4, 2018