It’s hard for me to understand how an album this good sneaks out into the world without anyone much noticing. For a solid year, the hardhead Buffalo rapper Conway has been talking up his new album G.O.A.T., calling it the best thing he’s ever done. In the time that he’s been touting the album, Conway and his younger brother Westside Gunn have signed a label deal with Eminem’s Shady Records, an awkward fit that should still, at least theoretically, give two of underground rap’s toughest wordsmiths a chance to find an audience beyond their internet cult. But that’s not what happened. Conway released a couple of middling mixtapes and then, with no real warning, unleashed G.O.A.T. into the world on a slow day in late December. As far as I know, it’s not even available as anything other than a SoundCloud stream. And yet it’s an absolute monster, a piece of hard and dusty throwback ’90s rap as strong and evocative as almost anything I’ve heard in the past year. Conway delivered exactly what he said he would, and the world barely paid attention.
G.O.A.T. came out only a few days after Revival, the new one from Conway’s new label boss Eminem, and it’s that album’s opposite in just about every way. Revival had ambitions. It wanted to reignite Eminem’s commercial dominance, launch a feud with the President of the United States, reaffirm Em’s pure-rapper excellence, and publicly atone for all of Em’s family squabbles over the years. It didn’t really accomplish any of those things. By contrast, G.O.A.T. — the title stands for “Grimiest Of All Time,” not “Greatest” — is about mood and intimidation and absolutely nothing else. It’s short and focused and it never drops its gameface. Other than one hazy track from the Alchemist, all the beats come from Daringer, the producer who’s been working with Conway and his associates for years. Other than fellow Buffalo rapper Benny and fellow Eminem intersector Royce Da 5’9″, all of the album’s guests come from various old-guard New York crews: Raekwon, Styles P, Lloyd Banks, the late Prodigy. There are basically no hooks on this thing. And its crackly, ominous thud never abates. You can sink into it. It fills a room.
Conway’s voice is a cold-eyed, husky mutter — the voice of a craggy old gunslinger, of a man who’s stared directly into the abyss and sneered at it. Conway’s face is permanently twisted to one side; half of it was paralyzed after he was shot in the back of the head a few years ago. I don’t know if that injury had any impact on Conway’s voice, but he certainly raps like someone who got shot in the back of the head and then lived. Daringer’s beats are forbidding, atmospheric lopes full of mournfully disembodied horn-honks and slow, confident basslines. It’s the first new rap record I’ve heard in a long time that makes time for DJ-scratch solos. This is clearly a throwback sound, but it’s not revivalism. Conway never raps about how much better things used to be, and he only throws a few stray lines at the rap new-jacks whose music is the polar opposite of his own. This is lived, felt music. It’s not concerned with recapturing older eras, which is exactly why it comes closer to recapturing older eras than anything that anyone else is making these days.
Conway raps almost exclusively about how he’ll be happy to kill you, and there’s murky authority in his threats. The grisly, granular details of his lyrics lend them a dark authority. In one of the album’s first lines, he gets into specific gory details: “I heard his ribs crack and splashed the wall with wig fragments.” But Conway is also a writer, and there’s a Raymond Chandler vividness to the specific ways that he tells you what he’ll do to you: “Back in jail, out of jail — nigga, I got dumb priors / Drive-bys in that Buick, low air front tire.” He’s in love with words, loading his lines with internal rhymes and taking clear and audible pleasure in the way those sounds careen into one another: “I came a long way from weighing crystal / Blazing nickel-plated pistols through ya facial tissue,” “I be with 16-year-old psycho rifle holders / Snipe you twice, your life is over.”
The emotionlessness of Conway’s deadpan delivery elevates it. He can talk about hard times in his own life in a couple of quick sketches, filling in entire years with a few throwaway details: “Since 15, been a Tec shooter / Did a stretch, came home big as Lex Luger.” And he also sketches out a whole criminal underworld where life is cheap: “The couple stacks I could make with the Mac on my waist / I could send a package upstate and have you stabbed in the face.” And Conway’s guests, either inspired or worried about being shown up, respond by upping their own games. Lloyd Banks’ verse on “Bullet Klub,” for instance, is the best thing I’ve heard from that guy in years: “Ran out of patience debating, die for the fast flip / Cruising, collecting Confederate flags to wipe my ass with.” (I love the idea of Banks showing up on a tangentially Eminem-related album in 2017. Those G-Unit bonds run deep!)
There’s something funny about hearing a rapper from Buffalo making this fundamentalist New York boom-bap. Buffalo and NYC might be in the same state, but they’re hours away from one another. Buffalo, way out in the northwestern reaches of New York, is practically Midwestern and practically Canadian. And yet Conway and his Griselda crew have fully internalized the spirit of slash-your-face New York rap, making it even harder and chillier than the music that clearly inspired it. As an arctic vortex sweeps across the entire American East Coast, making the entire motherfucker feel like Buffalo, music this unforgiving sounds perfect. Don’t let it slip past you.
G.O.A.T. is out now. Stream it below.
Other albums of note out this week:
• Jeff Rosenstock’s surprise pop-punk opus POST-. (Quick note: I wrote this column on Friday, before I knew POST- was coming out. I might’ve picked it if I’d known. I still might write about it next week.)
• Watain’s fearsome black metal onslaught Trident Wolf Eclipse.
• Summoning’s oceanic, near-ambient black metal odyssey With Doom We Come.
• Milo alter-ego Scallops Hotel’s zoned-out, discursive rap album Sovereign Nose Of (Y)our Arrogant Face.
• Cupcakke’s raunch-rap statement Ephorize.