Dean Van Nguyen can act out Heat by heart.
Nobody in the world is writing about selling drugs as well as Payroll Giovanni. His deft narratives encapsulate pop culture’s long-time fascination with hustlers, dealers, and drop-top riders. With a pure liquid gold flow, Payroll relentlessly examines similar themes without ever wearing them out. He’s seemingly on a mission to create the perfect street rap track, and he’s going to get there, it’ll probably be with producer Cardo in the co-pilot’s chair.
Payroll has dropped a few solid releases over the past couple of years (it took unalloyed confidence to make a derivative idea like the Scarface-themed mixtapes Sosa Dreamz and Payface work like he did), but his full-length Cardo team-up Big Bossin’ Vol. 1 has always been the jewel in the Raiders cap. Going together like an out-of-towner Snoop and Dre, the Detroit rapper and North Texas producer wore their affinity for classic West Coast grooves with distinction and honor.
This was music as patently LA as a James Elroy novel, a Michael Mann script, or the old English on Tupac’s abdomen—important artifacts of a pop culture portfolio that’s helped define the city. Payroll never even explicitly mentioned where his Technicolor drug-slinging narratives were set, but with Cardo bumping those cool, cloudless beats, it’s impossible to envision them taking place anywhere but Cali.
Now with the backing of Def Jam, here comes Big Bossin’ Vol. 2. The cover features an illustration of the pair riding around with the top down, looking like Boyz n the Hood’s Doughboy and one of the members of his crew. It was enough to make me grin like a Grinch—a near-guarantee that this project was going to satisfy those who, like me, still spin Vol. 1. True enough, like a lot of great sequels, Vol. 2 recaptures the magic of the original while building on previous work in a way that’s fresh and exciting.
It’s clear from clicking that big play button that Payroll and Cardo’s chemistry hasn’t dimmed a single shade. With its funky bassline, smooth g-funk whistles, and a cold-breeze-in-the-summertime saxophone that just adds to the West Coast flavor, “Rapped My Way” sleeks into view like a sports coupe coming out of a sunrise. Right at the top of his form, Payroll flow is luscious and silky. Has this guy ever met a consonant he fully trusts? Here, Gio raps about fighting back a nauseous feeling in his stomach during jewelry store heists. He claims to stay off lean and pills to stay sharp (champagne is fine, though), reveals his distrust of his allies (“Get hit with the RICO and see who really your dawg”), and indulges his tendency to veer between rapping about hustling on the streets and hustling in the music industry without establishing any borders between the two. That’s a lot of weight on what is essentially a summertime barbecue rap song.
Payroll works so much passion, purpose, and minutiae into his verses. “My Lifetime” offers a week in the life of a hustler as the emcee mixes his appreciation of what the game his given him with dreams of even bigger things. On the more downbeat synths of “Deep,” a phenomenal song, Payroll chronicles the street life from youth all the way up. “Never did cartwheels, I was flippin’ kane,” he raps in a bitter depiction of lost childhood. Gio has a wickedly effective habit of throwing in moments of great sobriety among the braggadocio.
On Cardo’s side of things, Los Angeles remains the center of his universe. “Stack It, Stash It,” for example, could pass for one of DJ Quik’s wonkier grooves. But the record actually takes some alternate routes too. Consider “In Me, Not On Me,” which features swirling set of analog electronics, like it’s been teased from a hacked Sega Genesis.
It’s enough to make up for the record missing a couple of the huge hooks that Vol. 1 boasted. The choruses on “Big Bossing” and “Successful” would set up camp in your mind’s pleasure centers and refuses to budge. On Vol. 2, the “Rapped My Way” hook—courtesy of singer Tamara Jewel, a returning cast member from Vol. 1—is undoubtedly catchy, while “5’s and 6’s” sees Payroll go through his garage like it’s a Fast & Furious edition of Beyonce’s “Countdown.” But most of the choruses feel like snatched lyrics from Payroll’s book of rhymes and delivered in a slightly more melodic way than his usual delivery. They’re totally fine, but one or two anthemic monsters would have been ideal.
There are, though, some solid guest spots. Jeezy is always good for an assist and his tense voice offers an effective counterpoint to Payroll’s fluidity on “Dopeman Dreams.” But no track impresses more than “Mail Long.” The prominent piano chords could have been lifted from a turn-of-the-century Dre beat, while the presence of E-40, a 50-year-old legend who has been over the stove since at least 1991, feels like Pacino has entered the building to mentor a young Keanu Reeves. “Buy a car lot, dispensary, or a fourplex/ Pack a good Glock for the enemy, extra clips.” Even a new master like Payroll listens when 40 Water doles out his trenchant life lessons. After all, when there’s a gap in your knowledge,you call in an expert.
Having recently entered his 30s, and with Cardo by his side, Payroll could conceivably become a similar sort of legend. Here they are, two artists slanting away from the stylistic forefathers in their hometowns, camped out in the wild, wild, west, re-imagining the rider album for the future.