The Griselda Goon-Rap Renaissance
There’s no Griselda Records starter pack, no canonical classic to lure you in. That’s not how the Buffalo rap crew does business. Instead, there’s a steady stream of content — whole new albums showing up every week or two, offering more ancestrally brutalist head-nod street-rap, more granular talk about drug sales and bullet fragments, more lightly refracted boom-bap beats, more samples of old pro-wrestling promos. At a certain point, you just decide to tap into that stream, or you don’t. If an album doesn’t lodge itself in your consciousness, that’s fine. There will be another one before long.
For the past few months, Griselda Records has been going nuts. All three of the principal rappers behind the label have put out full-lengths. In July: Westside Gunn’s Flygod Is An Awesome God II mixtape and Benny The Butcher’s Black Soprano Family tape, made with his own BSF crew as part of DJ Drama’s long-running Gangsta Grillz series. A few weeks ago: Conway The Machine’s From A King To A GOD album. And then there have been the records from the new additions: Boldy James’ The Versace Tape, Armani Caesar’s The Liz. None of them are classics. All of them are worth hearing. All of them will take you someplace. This is the model. This is the way Griselda does things.
In 2020, the Griselda Records boom works as a sort of canny counter-programming to the streaming-era rap mainstream. Griselda don’t chase hot big-name collaborators or jockey for playlist placement — or, if they do those things, then they do them quietly. Their music doesn’t reflect the sounds of present-day rap music. There are no 808 tic-booms, no slippery squeak-flows, no tabloid gamesmanship, no mewling sing-song Auto-Tune melodies. Instead, the rappers and producers in the Griselda braintrust have come up with their own version of Roc Marciano’s broken, impressionist take on East Coast impressionist-rap. The Griselda rappers are only a degree or two removed from the underground-rap aesthetic that Marciano helped found, but their take on that sound is one that scales up, that captures the imaginations of people who don’t necessarily maintain a few dozen rap-related Bandcamp subscriptions.
I don’t generally remember individual Griselda songs. I remember voices, beats, moments, standout lines. Griselda don’t really structure their songs; a lot of the time, they don’t even have hooks. The rappers also tread the same ground over and over, offering up infinite variations on the same old crime-life narratives. That means it’s hard for a Griselda track to stand out, but it also means that you know what you’re getting into when you cue up one of their records. They’ve become a durable brand. As a brand, they care about quality control, but they also care about making sure that there’s always new product on the market.
Westside Gunn seems to be Griselda’s standard-bearer — a curious thing when you consider his voice, a wheezing and nasal Bugs Bunny twang that can get old fast. But WSG seems to be the most industrious member of the crew, the one determined to cross them over to new audiences and find a place in the fashion world. WSG is the Griselda member who released the crew’s highest-profile album this year. Gunn’s Pray For Paris, released this past spring, featured big names: Joey Bada$$, Wale, Tyler, The Creator. But then Gunn followed it up a couple of months later with Flygod Is An Awesome God II, which had no big-name guests and no fashion-world rollout but which proved just as hard and listenable as Pray For Paris.
Whether Westside Gunn is reaching for attention or feeding his base, he still shows the same panache, the same swagger, and the same ability to pick beats that fit his voice. On Flygod Is An Awesome God II, for instance, WSG ropes in another rapper who fits the Griselda sound in ways that make sense. As far as I know, Stove God Cooks isn’t even an official part of the Griselda family; instead, he’s a recent protege of Busta Rhymes. But Stove God, who appears on three tracks from the mixtape, has a similar sound and energy as his host, and he comes from Syracuse, a freezing upstate New York town that might be even more neglected than Griselda’s native Buffalo. Bringing in Stove God is one more smart decision in a career full of them — though I’m still waiting for Gunn to retire his stupidly-titled Hitler Wears Hermes mixtape series.
By contrast, Westside Gunn’s cousin Benny The Butcher is my favorite pure rapper in the Griselda family, but he doesn’t always make the same kinds of smart decisions. Benny’s 2019 EP The Plugs I Met is probably the single best Griselda record, and I get fired up everytime I hear Benny show up on someone else’s track. But the Black Soprano Family mixtape doesn’t speak to me in the same way. Benny’s BSF associates Ricky Hyde and Heem are perfectly solid, but they don’t have the same magnetism that Benny himself does. Besides, I still feel like I’m getting to know Benny. I don’t know if I want to meet his friends yet.
Unlike Westside Gunn, Benny doesn’t exactly have have a stellar record at picking beats, either. Musically, Black Soprano Family is rock-solid, but it’s not imaginative. Nothing about it demands your attention. Benny says that he’s working on a full-length album with producer Hit-Boy, which is a big swing and which could be great. But given Hit-Boy’s fine-but-unspectacular work on recent Nas and Big Sean albums, I’m reserving judgment on that one. Still, Benny has emerged as one of the great guest-verse rappers currently working. Everytime I hear him projecting weary authority all over someone else’s record, I’m all in. Wherever he shows up, he adds dimension.
Conway adds dimension, too. Conway is the oldest of the three Griselda rappers, and he’s also the most grizzled. His raps are punchy and guttural, way more concerned with conveying menace than with projecting a star persona. So it’s a little surprising to hear so many commercial concessions on From King To A GOD, Conway’s new album. Most of the famous guests on the album are the kinds of craggy veterans — Havoc, Lloyd Banks, an on-fire Method Man — who seem to thrive in Griselda’s world. But Conway also has “Fear Of God,” a synthy and almost slinky DeJ Loaf collab with a Hit-Boy beat, and the shuffling, glowing, Murda Beatz-produced “Anza.” Sometimes, he sounds almost glamorous.
It’s an odd look for a rapper as fundamentally grimy as Conway, but it sort of works. Despite those reaches, Conway presumably knows he isn’t going to get significant radio airplay, that he’s not built for the Cole Bennett zeitgeist. So he’s given his style a slight adjustment — a tiny bit flossier, a tiny bit less insular. Conway was on a Lil Wayne album this year. He brags about writing a verse on a private jet with Kanye West — something that admittedly might’ve been more impressive a year ago. There’s no reason Conway can’t carve out more space for himself in the larger rap world. And if his music becomes slightly less bleak and bloodthirsty in the process, it’s not like he hasn’t already given us a dozen hard-ass underground rap mixtapes.
My favorite albums of Griselda’s recent blitz are the ones from the new recruits. With The Versace Tape, Westside Gunn has done great A&R work, pairing up his new signing Boldy James with a promising new producer, the former Vine comedian Jay Versace. James and Versace make a good team. Versace’s beats are warm, hazy jazz-loop meditations, often without drums, and they’re a graceful fit for James’ husky, battered, matter-of-fact voice.
The Versace Tape is brief and low-stakes, almost a demo. It never attempts to scale the heights of James’ two previous 2020 albums, The Price Of Tea In China and Manger On McNichols. But the new album is dark and pretty and full of great lines that you have to listen close to pick up: “Just had a blowout sale, it’s time to liquidate/ The coke numbing my tongue, I got expensive taste/ The G5 come with a fifth wheel like Elimidate/ It’s concrete till they free all my guys behind them prison gates.” The Versace Tape feels like the journey, not the destination. But it could lead somewhere great.
Meanwhile, on her own Griselda debut The Liz, Buffalo’s Armani Caesar brings a brash and larger-than-life charisma that adds new shades to the Griselda dynamic. Caesar raps about using sex and desire in the same kinds of heartless, mercenary ways that her labelmates use when they talk about moving drugs, and she’s got the toughness and the technical command to take control of the neck-jerk beats from Griselda’s usual producers. But there’s also a joyous self-assurance to Caesar’s delivery that immediately sets her apart.
Those new additions show huge promise, and Griselda hasn’t overextended itself yet. Instead, the three core rappers behind Griselda keep expanding their world. They’ve now got working associations with ’90s-vintage rap gods like the Lox and MC Eiht, as well as their label boss Eminem. DJ Premier has been producing a ton of tracks for them lately, and he sounds reinvigorated when Griselda voices are on his beats. Gifted hardheads like 38 Spesh and Elcamino and Stove God Cooks seem to be orbiting the Griselda circle, developing vital presences of their own. I don’t think the Griselda members are going to take over rap music, and I don’t think they should, either. But right now, they’re owning their own lane, and that’s just as exciting.
1. BigKayBeezy – “Bookbag 2.0″ (Feat. Polo G)
BigKayBeezy is a Chicago kid currently facing a murder charge in Texas, and that’s about all I know about him. But he goes absolutely ripshit crazy on this sinister slow-crawl beat. This shit is just impossibly hard even before Polo G shows up, talking about “Shots from this pump, like Lil Ricky, he running/ Blow this four-oh like a trumpet.”
2. ShooterGang Kony – “Overdose” (Feat. Lil Poppa)
ShooterGang Kony is getting really, really good at making regretful, emotive seen-it-all Bay Area rap shit. Lil Poppa, a young and bluesy melodic rapper from Jacksonville, somehow makes perfect sense on an extremely Bay beat.
3. Action Bronson – “Mongolia” (Feat. Hologram & Meyhem Lauren)
I’d mostly come to think of Action Bronson as a famous-for-being-famous TV-chef type, not as the berserk rap sensualist who made those mixtapes I loved in the early ’10s. But then he showed up rapping over his own zither loop, and I remembered. (Also, someone shipped me a box of Bronson’s Only For Dolphins ice cream a couple of weeks ago, and that shit is good.)
4. Rucci – “Bad Boys” (Feat. AzChike)
Charged-up, shit-talking Los Angeles rap kids are the best. Salute them.
5. Bandgang Lonnie Bands – “Houdini”
For some reason, this line kills me: “Neil Armstrong, stack that money to the fucking moon.” That’s not exactly what Neil Armstrong did, but the judges have ruled, and we’ll accept it.
IT WAS ALL GOOD JUST A WEEK AGO