Status Ain't Hood

The Griselda Crew Are Your Ugly Neck-Jerk Winter Rap Soundtrack

Toward the end of WWCD, the new album from the Buffalo rap crew Griselda, there’s a moment where Benny The Butcher gives his whole superhero origin story in a single bar: “I remember listening to Wu in ’95 / Got my first strap from Conway in ’99.” It’s all in there: New York-centric rap classicism, familial closeness, 20 years of life in an unreliable and dangerous criminal underworld. It’s all you need to know.

For the past few years, the three principal Griselda rappers — brothers Westside Gunn and Conway The Machine and their cousin Benny The Butcher — have been carving out a distinct niche on the rap landscape. They’ve been making grimy, guttural, ’90s-style NYC rap despite not coming from NYC. (Buffalo is a whole lot closer to Toronto than it is to any of the boroughs.) Their beats, mostly from regular-collaborator producers like Daringer and Beat Bully, are eerie and nervous and discordant. Their songs, by and large, don’t have choruses. Their music started out nowhere near rap’s center, and it’s only gotten further since then. But last week, Griselda released their major-label debut, whatever that might possibly mean.

Two and a half years ago, to some ballyhoo, the Griselda crew announced that they had signed with Eminem’s Shady Records. That announcement came with a new song called “MachineGun Black,” which had an Eminem intro and a beat from Just Blaze. The song wasn’t great, and it offered a slightly grim image of what a major-label version of Griselda might be. But then, nothing. Westside Gunn, Conway, and Benny continued to crank out albums and mixtapes on their own. Sometimes, they had some big-name rappers — usually ’90s New York veterans — along for guest-verses, but those collaborations didn’t seem like A&R decisions. Griselda seemed to be functioning as usual, changing nothing, fading deeper into their own corner of the rap internet. But last week, we got WWCD, the first true major-label Griselda effort. And the best thing about it is that it doesn’t sound like anyone’s idea of a major-label Griselda effort.

The Griselda crew are very much in their zone all through WWCD. This is nothing new. They’ve been continually cranking out new music — more than most fans could comfortably process. On WWCD, the three rappers work, again and again, with Daringer’s minor-key horror-movie neckbreakers. They only barely ever bother to come up with hooks. They talk about drugs and guns and money and very little else. Even the supporting cast is mostly unchanged. Regular collaborator Keisha Plum shows up to talk about pistol-whipping your granny in slam-poetry cadences. If you’ve been paying attention, it’s all familiar.

WWCD isn’t even the best Griselda record of 2019. For me, that would be Benny The Butcher’s EP The Plugs I Met. Benny is my favorite of the three rappers, and 24 minutes is just about the exact right length. When Griselda records get longer — and Westside Gunn solo mixtapes usually get way longer — all those gun-talk threats start to blur into each other. Individual Griselda songs don’t usually tend to stand out. Individual bars stand out. The whole overarching grim-and-ugly feeling stands out. But Griselda aren’t any closer to making hits now that they finally have a major-label album.

By my calculations, though, WWCD is the best album that’s come out on Shady Records since Obie Trice’s Cheers, 16 years ago. (I’m not saying that WWCD is better than Beg For Mercy or Straight Outta Cashville or anything crazy like that. The non-50 Cent G-Unit albums didn’t come out on Shady.) Griselda is winning by default there. Shady Records has not put out a whole lot of good music in the past decade and a half. Unless you’re a real latter-day Eminem apologist, or unless you really want to go to bat for Slaugherhouse or Bad Meets Evil or post-Trunk Muzik Yelawolf, Griselda win just by making solid rap music.

And WWCD really is solid rap music. Benny, tough and weary and sneaky-smart, has a handful of really great scrunch-your-whole-face-up bars on WWCD: “Hand on my clip / We animals, dismantle my strip / I’m 5’8″, 6’11” if I stand on my bricks,” “I pull that gun up, you slipping, you better run it / Shells, those feel like oatmeal, they sit in your stomach.” People aren’t really rapping about dealing crack the way they were a decade ago; the entire subject seemed exhausted. But Benny can still come up with a good crack-selling one-liner that I’ve never heard before: “I really beat white, I’m Mr. T from Rocky III.”

Conway, meanwhile, is a voice of husky authority. He’s got bluster; he’ll take a rapper’s chain and let his son wear it. But Conway never sounds triumphant, even when he’s talking his most grandiose shit. There’s a duality in what Conway does. Every time he flexes, he follows it up with something grim: “Griselda the championship team, we got the rings in / Mad as fuck my shooter got deported to Kingston,” “This Louis V shit, Virgil designed it / I got shot, and a few niggas got murdered behind it.” He and Westside Gunn sometimes toss bars back and forth in the old-school tag-team style that nobody does anymore, but they don’t sound like they’re having much fun. They don’t even throw around pro-wrestling references the way they used to do.

Westside Gunn, with his squeaky wheeze of a voice, is the Griselda member who immediately stands out the most, but he’s also the one who seems most likely to rely on schtick and autopilot. I like Gunn the best when he comes off like a crime-fiction writer. He can lay out a whole narrative in the space of a verse, and he can make a real character out of someone like the disloyal and bumbling Pete from Utica. (Things don’t turn out well for Pete from Utica.) Gunn also lives for contrasts: “In the Guggenheim, I had the fold-up Tec / Fendi headband, I didn’t break a sweat.”

Eminem doesn’t seem to have any interest in making Griselda fit into anything like a commercial format. You can’t really upscale the thing that Griselda do. They just do that thing. It’s a thing with very little commercial potential, but they do it very well. 50 Cent turns up once, and he immediately starts rapping like the Griselda guys, not trying to pull them into his world. Eminem appears, too, but he thankfully appears as the last voice on the album. That makes him easy to skip.

Eminem’s verse on Conway’s “Bang” has been out in the world for a few months. It isn’t getting any better. That’s the verse where Em crows about his own legacy, says that he’s going at these pricks like Lorena Bobbitt, and actually speaks the words “I ate her twat like a Tater Tot.” (Have I been eating Tater Tots wrong all these years? Is there a different way to eat a Tater Tot, one that a human being could reasonably compare to cunnilingus?)

In the “Bang” remix that appears on WWCD, that verse stands out even more, since Em is talking this baloney immediately after we’ve heard Benny get some real bars off: “Been hated on more than Jesus, locked up more times than Kodak / The pots handy, pitched for my family like Sandy Koufax.” It’s almost like Eminem wanted to remind you what a terrible rap verse sounds like so that you can properly appreciate everything all the good ones on the album.

Maybe that’s the real gift of major-label Griselda. Benny, Conway, and Gunn are going to keep doing what they’ve always done, and they’re going to keep doing it well. But now, they get to make the biggest-selling rapper of all time sound stupid in the process.

FURIOUS FIVE

1. The Professionals – “Superhumans” (Feat. Elzhi & Chino XL)
It’s crazy that Madlib and Oh No have never joined forces to make a whole album before. It’s also crazy that most of us have gone this long without hearing a full and undiluted burst of Chino XL insanity. I say this in the most old-man way possible, but good lord, that man can rap. (The “Blow The Whistle” sample is cool, too.)

2. Yella Beezy – “Ay Ya Ya Ya” (Feat. Ty Dolla $ign)
Yella Beezy has come up making craggy-voiced half-sung blues, so I’m vaguely shocked that he’s this good at making horny party music. This thing has energy.

3. RA & Snap Capone – “Don’t Slip”
I don’t even know what British rap subgenre this one fits into, but that beat kicks me in the stomach so hard I might puke. Also a line like “rolling with this elephant trunk, moving like Ong-Bak” is relevant to my interests. Bonus point for having the first rap video I’ve ever seen where someone uses a cricket bat as a murder weapon.

4. G Herbo – “Hunnit Bands”
G Herbo has a great, ugly scratch-growl of a voice, and he should really rap over more graceful and weirdly pretty beats like this. The contrast works.

5. Offica & Fizzler – “SkiddiBop”
If I ever get sick of watching UK rappers do silly dances, just kill me on the spot.

IT WAS ALL GOOD JUST A WEEK AGO