Westside Gunn Isn’t Underground Anymore
Last year, the Griselda Records guys couldn’t get on a Dreamville compilation. Early in 2019, J. Cole put together an impressive roster of rappers and producers, assembling them at an Atlanta studio for a kind of rap camp. Westside Gunn and Benny The Butcher, two of the rappers from the reliably guttural Buffalo group Griselda, were among those invited. But when the Revenge Of The Dreamers III compilation came out in July, Gunn and Benny weren’t on it. (This led to a brief Twitter conflagration between Benny and Guapdad 4000, who was all over the compilation. It was a whole thing.) Nine months later, it’s almost impossible to imagine anything like that happening again. Griselda have, against odds, become a mainstream-adjacent force, and they have created their own field of gravity. They don’t need to be on anyone else’s compilation.
Westside Gunn and Benny The Butcher probably shouldn’t have been at the Dreamers sessions in the first place. Considering who stood out on the final compilation — mostly the jumpy young fast-rap types who were already aligned with Dreamville — Gunn and Benny wouldn’t have made any sense on it. The Griselda Records guys create their own context. They rap in precise and unhurried grumbles, and they keep things hard and guttural. They talk about expensive clothes, but they also talk about granular drug-dealing memories and specific patterns of brain splatter. And they know how to present themselves better than anybody else could.
View this post on Instagram
JAY Z wearing the PRAY FOR PARIS crew and @rocnation x GXFR hat infront of a Kerry James Marshall Painting is absolutely one of the most ICONIC moments for the CULTURE this image is HISTORY!!!!! #PRAYFORPARIS #ICON #ART #Fashion #LEGEND #ROCNATION #GXFR #KERRYJAMESMARSHALL #Historic #CULTURE #HOV #jayz
In the past few months, most of the entrenched rap establishment has gotten behind Griselda. Before that, they were underground favorites with critical acclaim and cult fame. Eminem signed them to Shady Records as far back as 2017, but he didn’t put out any of their music until late last year, when they finally released the major-label debut WWCD. Since then, though, a whole lot of famous rappers have said nice things about Griselda. Heavyweights — Drake, Jay-Z, Kanye West — have joined Eminem in endorsing Griselda in one way or another. Griselda have made a video with Hype Williams. They’ve performed on The Tonight Show. They’re all over virtually every rap-centric website on the internet. But I also know guys who don’t pay any attention to present-day rap and who love Griselda passionately. (Griselda, I have noticed, are now the hardcore scene’s rap crew. If their commercial prospects ever wane, they’ll be able to play Black & Blue Bowl-type festivals for the rest of their lives.)
That rise comes to a head this week with the release of Westside Gunn’s album Pray For Paris, quite possibly the highest-profile release that has yet come out of the Griselda camp. Gunn has said that the album was inspired by his trip to Paris for Fashion Week in January. There, Gunn sat in the front row at Virgil Abloh’s show, and Abloh designed the cover for Pray For Paris. In this GQ interview with Abloh and former Stereogum staffer Corban Goble, Gunn talks about how he wanted to become a fashion designer as a kid but turned to drug-dealing instead because he’d already become a father before finishing high school. Gunn has also been instrumental in turning Griselda into the a presence in the merch world, selling the same kinds of expensive limited-edition gear as more-famous peers.
Musically, Gunn and Griselda are among the many rap-fundamentalist voices who have come out of the underground in the decade since Roc Marciano released Marcberg. Like so many of them, Gunn uses the sound of classic ’90s New York rap as a sort of impressionistic framework, playing around with that style rather than rigidly adhering to it. But what sets Gunn apart isn’t just branding. It’s context, too. Throughout Pray For Paris, Gunn throws in mentions of designer labels, something that’s never been remotely interesting to me. But he also draws contrasts between his consumption habits and the street violence that’s also familiar to him: “Body parts on Cavalli dishes,” “bulletproof Bentleys parked outside the Whitney,” “Goyard leashes on all-red Saint Bernards.”
View this post on Instagram
Don’t ever call me a Rapper.. IM AN ARTIST!!!!! I’m diff and I always knew I was diff shit be so over ppl heads some think I’m even trash bc they don’t understand it but that’s wat happens with Rare ART, i can’t help that I’m that dope and u can’t understand it, I don’t have to be the most popular but I’m the most respected I’ve already did the unthinkable, I can easily dumb it down and go platinum but the game has NEVER seen a WESTSIDEGUNN before the way I curate, my ear for production, the way I bring ppl into my world and bring the best out of them TONIGHT is my latest Masterpiece All I ask is that u support real ART, Virgil doing the cover is my Grammy so I already Won, Play this shit on repeat and tell everybody with ears real HIP HOP IS ALIVE!!!!!!! #FLYGOD #GXFR #ICON #MASTERPIECE #ART #FASHION #BUFFALOKIDS #PRAISEBOTH #PRAYFORPARIS #VirgilABLOH #Paris #CULTURE
In an Instagram post last week, Gunn wrote, “Don’t ever call me a Rapper.. IM AN ARTIST!!!!!” He’s not wrong, exactly. Gunn’s actual rapping may be the weakest thing about his music. His voice is a drawn-out high-pitched wheeze. That voice can be rough. Sometimes, he reminds me of an exaggerated street tough from a ’40s detective movie. In his worst moments, he even calls to mind the inexplicable Edward G. Robinson impression that Nas did on the 2006 track “Who Killed It,” maybe the worst rap song ever recorded.
But Westside Gunn’s voice stands out. It pops. It’s probably the main reason why Griselda first grabbed people’s attention. I prefer the wordier, grislier precision of Gunn’s brother Conway and his cousin Benny. Gunn usually works best in contrast to those two. Gunn raps in loose cadences, sometimes only vaguely nodding in the direction of his beats. He seems to put more energy into his ad-libs, which are mostly gun sounds, than into his lyrics. Sometimes, those lyrics are sharp and vivid: “Left out that fed cell, did the impossible, incomparable/ Hundred drumsticks, and silencers came optional.” Sometimes, though, they fade into the background.
And yet Pray For Paris works because Gunn understand how to best showcase his own voice. Even though it’s a solo album, Gunn is happy to play the supporting actor, bringing in verses from show-stealing guests like Freddie Gibbs and Roc Marciano. (Roc only has one verse, but he has some of the best lines on the album: “The MAC-11 hit your melon and crack it/ Ain’t no pads for that in that medicine cabinet,” “Ten metal fragments can flip your skeleton backwards/ All you seen after that was blackness,” “The seats in the Benz Lenny Kravitz skin.”) Tyler, The Creator raps on one song and produces another. Gunn’s ear for glowing head-crack beats is magnificent; DJ Premier, for instance, contributes what might be his best track in years on “Shawn Vs. Flair.” Near the end of the album, there’s a run of beats — Alchemst/Premier/Tyler — that’s just gorgeous. Gunn deserves credit for putting this thing together.
For a 41-minute album, Pray For Paris is also full of sampled voices: A Christie’s auctioneer selling off a $400 million da Vinci, Ghostface Killah fuming at Martin Shkreli, the Million Dollar Man Ted DiBiase berating his jeweler about all the diamonds that he needs. (Westside Gunn, blessedly, is still as enthused about pro wrestling as he is about designer labels. Pray For Paris is maybe the first album I’ve ever heard where two different rappers namecheck Eric Bischoff.) I’ll probably get sick of those skits if I keep playing the album. For now, though, they help make it an experience.
As a pure rapping showcase, Pray For Paris isn’t on the same level as LULU, the EP that Conway and the Alchemist released a couple of weeks ago. It’s not even in the same universe as The Price Of Tea In China, the 2020 album from Pray For Paris guest Boldy James. But Pray For Paris reminds me a bit of the music that A$AP Rocky was releasing a decade ago. The difference, of course, was that Rocky was a New Yorker drawing stylized aesthetic inspiration from regional rap music. Westside Gunn, meanwhile, is a regional rapper — geographically, Buffalo is closer to Toronto or Cleveland than it is to NYC — drawing stylized aesthetic inspiration from old New York rap music. They’re both curators. There are worse things to be.
1. DaBaby – “Blame It On Baby”
DaBaby’s new album is mostly just decent beach reading, and it’s too familiar after the two albums that the guy released last year. But on the title track, DaBaby rips into a beat that keeps twisting into new shapes, and he never loses the thread. Considering all the shit the guy has (mostly justifiably) gotten for just making the same song over and over, it’s exciting to hear him jam three or four different songs into one track.
2. Shoreline Mafia – “Gangstas And Sippas” (Feat. Q Da Fool)
Too Short was already a Bay Area legend when he made the original “Gangstas And Sippas,” a 2007 attempt to cash in on the hyphy movement. On their new single, Los Angeles wild boys Shoreline Mafia, whose sound is basically nu-hyphy, slightly tweak that 2007 beat, using it as a vector for unstable energy.
3. E-40 – “Go”
E-40 is 52 years old, and he still has the energy to go off on a two-minute sprint like this one. It’s inspiring. Also inspiring: The admirably weird beat from 40’s son, the great Droop-E. Together, E-40 and Droop-E must be the best two-generation rap team in history. I don’t even know what their competition would be. Master P and Lil Romeo never got down like this.
4. Icewear Vezzo – “2 Hands” (Feat. Sada Baby)
This past week, Sada Baby showed up on the Blueface track “Tour,” a multi-region posse cut that also features people like Asian Doll and Glokk 9. It’s bad. Sada’s verse is great, but he shouldn’t have to compete for space with C-list mainstream-rap goofs. (I like a lot of the other rappers on that song, but they don’t all make sense together.) I want Sada Baby to get famous, but I also want him to keep making Detroit records like this Icewear Vezzo one forever.
5. Chavo – “Michigan”
Pi’erre Bourne makes avant-garde music. A whole lot of noisy, discordant, obnoxious rap music gets called “experimental,” but precious little of it is as weird as this beat.
IT WAS ALL GOOD JUST A WEEK AGO
damn this new fiona apple go crazy pic.twitter.com/s2oIsqniiF
— beard (@captbeardd) April 17, 2020