The city of Buffalo is way out in the hinterlands, a whole lot closer to Toronto than it is to New York City. But if you listen to the feverish and ferocious Buffalo rappers Westside Gunn and Conway, Buffalo sounds like some undiscovered sixth borough of NYC — a place where Southern rap sonics and Giuliani-era police tactics never intruded, where it’s the ’90s forever. The two rappers aren’t revivalists, exactly; like New York peers Roc Marciano and Ka, they specialize in a dark and tingly take on that old New York boom-bap, one where the drum-clatter matters less than the general ambient air of weeded-out contemplation. But where Roc Marci and Ka sound like wise elder statesman, Westside Gunn and Conway are unreconstructed street hardheads. They rap about leaving blood in steaming puddles on cracked sidewalks. There’s a devil-may-care intensity to what they do, and the concrete granular detail of their lyrics makes them sound truer and more lived-in than if they were rapping in loose generalities. They sound just impossibly hard, and their hardness resonates as art.
I haven’t written at length about Westside Gunn yet, but last year, the rapper released Flygod, an album that snuck up on me. Flygod squeezed its way in at #20 when I was counting down my favorite rap albums of last year, and it should’ve been higher. It’s one of those albums that worms its way into your head, growing in stature with each listen. While Westside is constantly cranking out new music — mixtapes, EPs, loose tracks, whatever — Flygod clearly represented the moment he shot his shot, presenting his sound to the world outside Buffalo. That album had plenty of guests, most of them from rap’s ignorant-intelligent underground wing: Roc Marci, Action Bronson, Your Old Droog, and then Danny Brown, who doesn’t come from that corner but who’s always happy to make music with those guys. Alongside those boldfaced names, Westside rapped eerily specific split-your-head threats in a pinched nasal creak that made him sound like a deranged little kid. (He’s really in his thirties, but he sounds like an absurdly tough teenager.) Still, the most striking voice on Flygod didn’t come from Westside or from any of those more-famous guests. It came from Conway, Westside’s older brother.
On the very first track on Flygod, Conway effectively showed up his little brother, rapping about beating a cop’s ass with his own flashlight. Conway sounds nothing like Westside Gunn. His voice is a deep, whispering husk, a menacing mutter. Four years ago, Conway was shot in the back of the head, leaving half of his face paralyzed. Plenty of New York rappers talk out of the sides of their mouths; it’s a regional affectation. Conway doesn’t have any choice in the matter. It’s hard to say what effect that shooting must’ve had on Conway’s voice, but he makes its grizzled grain work for him. It’s not that there’s no emotion in his voice. It’s that the main emotion he conveys is a sort of swaggering seen-it-all thousand-yard-stare, like a veteran samurai in a Kurosawa movie. Conway can be funny; he goes heavy on punchlines and sports references. But he always makes sure to keep things unsettling: “Kush trap in Atlanta jumping like Bazemore / I show them niggas what the Ks for / I knew he was dead, but I put one more in his head, I made sure.”
Both Westside Gunn and Conway make a ton of music, together and separately; back in August, they joined forces for the Hall And Nash EP. (Both of them make a ton of old wrestling references, and that’s another thing I like about them.) They’ve also recorded a new EP produced entirely by the Alchemist, something that they apparently recorded in a day and a half. But given their prolific nature, it’s been a while since we’ve heard Conway go solo. His last project was a very good late-2015 10-song affair called Reject 2. Lately, Conway has been promising a new solo album called GOAT, talking about it as the best thing he’s ever done. (Between that and the lovely new Julie Byrne album, Not Even Happiness, this is promising to be the best year for Buffalo music since Rick James fell off, or at least since Snapcase broke up.) Conway hasn’t yet said when GOAT will be out, but I’m ridiculously excited for it. You should be, too. It’s about to be some shit.
1. Migos – “T-Shirt”
The video is an obvious masterpiece, the type of thing that makes me want to type the phrase “Stanley Quavorick.” (Or “David Sipping Lean.” Or “Paul Takeoff Anderson.” I could go on.) But the song itself, with its lovely synth-drones and its dirged-out Auto-Tune choral backing vocals, is a thing of beauty, too. It reminds me of Homogenic, of all things. Now that “Bad And Boujee” is widely recognized as one of history’s greatest dead-of-winter summer jams, it’s inspirational to know that the Migos have something like this waiting in the wings.
2. Jefe – “One”
For reasons I can’t pretend to understand, DC street-rap hero Shy Glizzy, who had a great name, has decided instead to go by the deeply generic moniker of Jefe. But as long as he’s joyously hovering over a dinky, playful, oddly pretty Zaytoven track like this, he can call himself whatever the fuck he wants.
3. Been Had Boys – “Money Phone” (Feat. Offset)
Been Had Boys is the duo of Atlanta underground stars Key! and Reese LaFlare, and on their new collaborative mixtape, they prove themselves remarkably good at meditative, zone-out trap music. But they’re not so good that Offset can’t stomp through their track and leave smoldering wreckage in his wake.
4. Clyde Carson – “Gettin To It” (Feat. Keak Da Sneak)
Two Bay Area veterans spend two minutes going in over a titanic fart-monster of a hyphy track. A song doesn’t have to be long if it gets all its shit in right away.
5. Young Dolph – “Bagg” (Feat. Lil Yachty)
A nice thing about the weirdo takeover of Southern rap’s younger generation: A bone-hard Memphis street star like Dolph might end up snarling over a beat that sounds like it comes from the soundtrack of a futuristic Legend Of Zelda sequel. One slick line: “At Pappadeaux eating alligator / My favorite app is the calculator.”
IT WAS ALL GOOD JUST A WEEK AGO
— Complex Music (@ComplexMusic) January 9, 2017