It is no longer a secret that the new media offer a great many opportunities for aspiring artists. The shut-down of social media platform Vine, which was announced by Twitter in late October, was a threat to everyone who had built up a career and community of followers on their 6.5 second clips. As most abandon the sinking ship for the more stable islands of Instagram, YouTube and Twitter, some use Vine’s collapse to boldly head into new waters. Stephen “Pacman” Payen is one of those. On Vine he was part of Vine-star Marlon Webb’s group of friends and brothers in crime, mostly directing, shooting or editing. Although the gang still continues to produce videos on YouTube (SKITSOPHRENIA PRODUCTIONS), Payen has now emerged as a more recognizable member and a promising musician.
Over the course of the last five months Payen has released four singles for his recent album “The Adventures of PACMAN” (25.12.2016), which really made you look forward to the debut. They perfectly showcase what Payen’s music is all about. His style is clearly rooted in the 90’s soul flavoured hip hop, in fact, his first single Soul or Energy (I Can Give You More) might as well be a Pete Rock production. The smooth, jazzy beats, over which he effortlessly carries his lyrics, typically feature samples from that decade, like Erykah Badu’s On an On or A Tribe Called Quest’s Type Beat. This connection to both his own and the genre’s past is an attribute of his music that he himself embraces. The hook of his song TWENTY15 clearly underlines this as he raps: “These the kind of days I reminisce.” As he usually focuses on telling stories and exploring topics, Payen raps very straight forward and uses this to develop his complex imagery and clever lyrics.
However, Payen’s affiliation to his obvious musical inspirations is no cheesy imitation. He much more tastefully pays homage and still maintains his very own personality in the songs. His confidently repeated hook “I could give you more” builds the center for criticism of hypocrisy and a stance for honesty and individuality. More often than not the following albums do not live up to the bar that has been set by promising singles. Payen’s debut successfully encompasses and reflects what his music is about. In a frame narrative, children ask their grandfather for a bedtime story which in turn is told through Payen’s songs. The almost stream-of-consciousness way, in which he flows from topic to topic has already been featured on his 2016 EP 1451. In Shorty Down The Block he displays his excellent storytelling skills, talking about finding and losing love. What seems to be autobiographic content is again found in TWENTY15, where he explores how he experienced others and himself in the eponymous year. In this two faced song he demonstrates finesse in different rap techniques to contemplate about his own character. To think about what you do is not only what he does in his texts, but also what he asks a listener to do in his latest single, Kiddie Rock.
Explicit social criticism has been a topic of his earlier songs (Can I? is a deeply emotional and moving spoken word piece about racism and violence inspired by the police shootings of young black men in 2016). However, Payen seems to have chosen a more biographical approach for his adventures. The concerns that he voices in songs like New Year(s) Revolution and Co-operate America, both have a very individual meaning to himself, but also include a broader appeal.
Self-aware, he answers the question: “What is he? Is he a rapper or a film maker?” with a simple: “I can’t do both?” For the music videos of his singles, Payen and his friends switched their typical roles from Vine. Now it is Payen in front of the camera, with Marlon Webb behind it. Although the videos might seem boring at the first glance, they actually perfectly underscore the rapper’s music. All the characteristic aspects of his auditory art and style are mirrored visually; the cinematography is reminiscent of the vibe of 90’s MTV hip-hop videos. In contrast to historical links, both the lyrics and the videos include items of modern pop-culture, thus cementing the combination of Payen’s nostalgia and his contemporary approach. The grainy images of Webb’s handheld camera and the deliberate amateur filming, again and again create an intimate atmosphere within Payen’s circle of friends, where his personal lyrics play out fittingly.
His art is honest but not naive, it is individual but not smug; it is both a tribute and modern, but neither rip-off nor mainstream. “Where is Pacman now?”“Yeah, you never said where he is” are the final words of dialog in “The Adventures of PACMAN.” While this somewhat hints his motivation for the album and its overall theme, I have one hopeful answer: At the starting line of a promising career.