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History has always proven that whenever a music project is stellar, its album cover brings that feeling to life. The attitude on POISON — the first lead album coming from Swizz Beatz since 2007— is menacing, to say the least. As each of the LP’s ten tracks play out in real time, the featured roster of superstar guests attacking the grandiose beats of Swizzy resemble the goblins terrorizing POISON’s album art.
Designed by L.A.-based sculptor and canvas painter Cleon Peterson in 2015, “End of Empire” artwork depicts the conceptual story being replayed on POISON. According to his website’s bio, Peterson’s body of work shows “clashing figures symbolizing a struggle between power and submission in the fluctuating architecture of contemporary society.” On “End of Empire,” we witness chaos ensuing around a fountain at a holiday party in the color scheme of red and black, along with booze and blood dripping on the ground, as demons stab and seduce elite partygoers.
POISON opens with a fiddle being cued up and the spoken words of British musician Áine Zion. Analogous to the monologue start of Kanye West’s “Dark Fantasy,” the “Poison Intro” comes from the perspective of the album’s executive producer — who promises to rep his Bronx hood with “hip hop on my sleeve and 25 soldiers.” Those 25 soldiers, aka the all-star collective of emcees featured on POISON, were enlisted to deliver “head-banging lyrical fit[s]—we vibrate on.” At the end of the monologue, on the behalf of Swizz, Zion refers to the upcoming production as “poisonous.”
The instrumental outerlude of “Intro” continues to set the narrative. It waltzes like a tune that could fit the film score of The Great Gatsby — particularly the West Egg mansion parties of Nick Gatsby — which in itself, evoke moods of heroism and eeriness. The next track “Pistol On My Side (P.O.M.S.)” is underscored by medieval keyboard work from Alicia Keys, pumped by a drumline rattling base (assisted by AraabMUZIK), and a paced flow from Lil Wayne. Weezy issues a warning to his enemies — one that would proceed his Tha Carter V single “Uproar” — with a 9mm in his possession.
In actuality, the violent metaphors and the gore that’s bound to follow on POISON are all a commentary on the present state of music. Hearing the energy that radiates throughout POISON, it’s obvious that Swizz had been fired up to re-inspire the game for a while, simultaneously redirecting its course with longstanding expertise. Musically, 2018 has manifested into an important year of living pioneers from the late ’90s to 2000s revisiting their roots and applying it to today’s trends. “P.O.M.S.” displays this, as both Swizzy and Weezy are testing themselves, pushing not only to see if their styles can still stand the test of time, but also to remind new crops of listeners about their originator statuses.
Through these types of challenges, pioneers such as Swizz have to still offer an emerging sound to the landscape. He successfully does that on “Come Again,” which features Londoner Giggs over a beat matching grime hip hop. Fueled by revving V12 motors and J Dilla-recalling sirens, “Come Again” manages a transatlantic connect (of British polish and North American rowdiness) that’s bound to become the latest wave in hip hop for what would actually be a second time around, post-West’s “All Day” in 2015. This connect would later move into the era of Stefflon Don’s debut, Giggs being featured on Drake’s More Life, and Stormzy winning grime’s first BRIT Award for album of the year.
As Swizz and Giggs refer to themselves as “loca” (with what sounds like DMX chanting “WHAT?!” in the background, as a means of encouragement), their fulfilling the lyrical manifesto promised at the start of POISON. Giggs attacks his wordplay, first mentioning “light skin pussy on my sofa,” before going “man straight boss it” — his accent offering a mondegreen, or an intentionally misheard double entendre on “man straight.”
When discussing POISON on REVOLT’s “State of the Culture” episode entitled “The State of Our Freedom,” Remy Ma inquired about why she didn’t receive a phone call to be featured on the project. By the time of the fourth track, “Something Dirty/Pic Got Us,” it’s clear to see that frustration comes from envy. Featuring The LOX and Kendrick Lamar, “Something Dirty” is actually regal, as fanfare trumpets and another drumline soundtracks the lyricism of three GOATs. Jadakiss and Styles P exchange bars precisely on beat for the Yonkers royal affair, while Lamar only stays on the hook.
Aptly co-titled “Pic Got Us,” this track works as the best musical representation to what’s presently going on with the album art. Lamar announces a robbery taking place through the song’s pre-hook, ordering “everybody back up/ man down/ back the fuck up.” At one point, Jadakiss even notes, “Life is a movie and death is a co-star,” as we see Game of Thrones-styled murders being inflicted on Peterson’s canvas.
Each emcee has the opportunity to describe their hustle and gloat about their rap skills. But, the most intriguing feature has to be Jim Jones. In a collection of The LOX, Lil Wayne, and Nas, listeners are reminded how instrumental Jones was for a certain era of music in the aughts. Including his days in Dipset, Jones had airwaves rocking with an aerodynamic style of BX-Harlem hip hop (see: “We Fly High”). That’s felt on “Preach” with a xylophone playing “oh my gosh, oh my gosh” on a chord of notes. Circling back to the concept of POISON, it makes sense why Swizz would enlist Jones, who shares the same name with the preacher mastermind and terrorist of the Jonestown cyanide-Kool Aid murders in 1978.
After that sermon by Jones, the album’s tonal shift towards more conscious hip hop starts to take place. Drawing inspiration from “End of Empire,” POISON begins to reflect a sophisticated black response to the injustices of the system. It’s not just a call to arms like “Pistol On My Side” or “Something Dirty,” but rather an extenuation of Jones’ preaching through Nas on “Echo” and Pusha T on “Cold Blooded.”
Starting a toast for “one of the greatest,” Swizz clinks his glass, as he recites poetry before an Illmatic, Queensbridge-hailing Nas takes the mic. Nas’ vivid imagery about the rugged days of hustling in the projects is the storytelling that many wanted to hear on NASIR, but instead of it being based in 2018 or back in 1994, Nas is “talkin’ the 80s.” Sonically, both “Echo” and “Cold Blooded” rift off ’80s lounge music, or that of a Shaft-styled blaxploitation. When Nas brings us back to the Reagan-Bush era in his bars — the beginning time of mass incarcerations and the crack epidemic — history is being retraced by those who rap about it best.
Pusha T starts off his verse on “Cold Blooded” about a “black child born in the storm,” as wind chimes twinkle over a brisk track. Describing the “child rebel soldiers of the inner city,” “Cold Blooded” draws on how “that sugar” (or coke) shaped monsters of the ’90s, or the millennial generation. Through this story-arcing, society is yet again shown by hip hop, where the poisonous, rowdy energy of black folk stems from.
Closing out the album, three tracks bring us back to an anthemic spirit, which cleanses those toxic perceptions. It’s the kind of atmospheric energy that propelled Swizz into being one of the greatest producers to ever touch a beat. Young Thug nails his stream of conscious lyricism on “25 Soldiers” — mirroring the zone of “P.O.M.S.,” as it’s also produced by AraabMuzik. With 2 Chainz on “Stunt,” the beat is grounded in an arrogance suitable for the runways of Milan or Paris Fashion Week. And on the closer, “SWIZZMONTANA,” French Montana and Swizz reference ’90s hip hop from Missy Elliott to 2Pac and Biggie with a deserving cockiness.
POISON functions with many purposes. But, it mainly serves as a portal for hip hop — past, present and future. Selecting only ten tracks from 70-plus potential songs Swizz was said to have, as well as an even greater number of artists spanning generations, Swizz successfully laid out a blueprint for the new school of producer albums. Furthermore, the mentorship of J. Cole as an executive producer helped bridge these eras of hip hop, as Swizz pointed out in an interview with The Fader. Restoring his power in arts, Swizz was able to channel universal criticisms directed toward hip hop’s present dominant state — and its black superstars who lead the scene — to give society the poisonous body of work they’d been expecting. POISON is not just an album full of club bangers, it’s a cohesive project that understands its need in the current climate.
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