On its face, Mass Appeal’s Hip Hop 50 EP series is designed to celebrate different generations of rap in the best way possible, pairing acts from the past and present with legendary producers to show where the genre’s been and where it’s going. Its first entry, 2022’s DJ Premier-helmed Hip Hop 50 Vol. 1, revamped classical Preemo sounds with artists from the old and new schools for songs that were throwback, but distinct enough that the project didn’t feel like a cheap novelty. Swizz Beatz’s Hip Hop 50 Vol. 2 has its moments, but drab beats, bland hooks and some questionable curatorial decisions make it feel like a step back.
The best parts of the EP arrive when Swizzy connects with collaborators who align with his more traditional mid-aughts aesthetic, like Nas. For “Runaway,” Esco cuts into a pitched-up Son Little sample, recalling life as a flashy teen crack dealer who’s too arrogant to respect the law: “Cuban link dreams, chasin’ fiends down/D’s found nothing, frisked me, I had the nerve, not even put the weed down.” With his frenzied delivery, Nas evokes exasperation that’s matched by urgent piano and a hook that sounds like a desperate call for escape. It’s not the most inventive, but the emphatic beat only serves to let the Nas bars linger.
Elsewhere on the project, Swizzy gets cross-generational, connecting Jadakiss with Buffalo vet Benny The Butcher and flat-out youngin Scar Lip for “Take Em Out.” The beat sounds like a lesser version of “The Bridge Is Over” and Kiss’ quip about “mumble rap” stinks of East Coast elitism and old head energy. But the bars are otherwise strong, and there’s something wholesome about a rap legend linking up with stylistic street rap successors. Swizzy starts to falter when it comes to new gen rappers, with his unwillingness — or inability — to adapt, preventing them from optimizing their strengths.
For “Say Less,” Swizzy taps Lil Durk and A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie for a subdued, but militant soundbed and a mildly formulaic hook he chants himself. This should have been a moment where Swizzy played to the strengths of the artists he’s featuring; he could’ve fused his own take on a drill beat with an anthemic melody from A Boogie. Instead, he serves up a beat better suited for mid-aughts rhyme-slingers from the five boroughs. There’s just a lack of invention.
That dearth of innovation spills out once again on “City Sound Like,” a mid-2000s revivalist anthem featuring Fivio Foreign and Bandmanrill, two artists who couldn’t be more different from The Lox. Instead of a beat that matches the frenetic pace of BK drill or Jersey Club, we’re left with a quirky, but linear track that sees both artists spitting at half speed — a tragedy for true innovators on the frontier of a new tri-state. The hook itself — “This what the city posed to sound like” — speaks to the prescriptive parameters Swizzy seems to be adhering to for the project. That would be cool, but because of the artists he chooses, there isn’t the sort of era and regional cross-pollination that would make this whole thing interesting.
Conversely, Preemo’s Hip Hop EP works because it found synergy between the past and present, pairing unexpected collaborators for tracks that are as cohesive as they are imaginative. Putting Slick Rick and Lil Wayne over a dreamy Ronnie Lewis sample is the stuff of a boom bap mad scientist, and Joey Bada$$ is an obvious successor to the cypher-dwellers Premier first produced for. DJ Premier didn’t stray far from his dusty samples, but he tapped in with folks who can thrive on golden age sounds.
Stylistically, Swizz also chose to stay close to home, or at least, the version of it he knew. But the Big Apple has expanded a lot. And besides that, rap is bigger than N.Y. Ultimately, grabbing artists just to do the same stuff you’d do with your typical collaborators feels like a wasted opportunity. Hip Hop 50 is supposed to pay tribute to various eras and sonic landscapes of the genre. It’s meant to be a celebration, but aside from flashes of his old glory, Swizz doesn’t give a whole lot to clap for.