Griselda’s Dominant 2020: A Playlist
Among their critics, Griselda Records has a reputation for being one-note. If that was true, it’s the best niche possible: a note that many golden era rap fans think is missing from the genre today, and a note that Griselda has proven to be the best at. For the past five years, the label — led by Buffalo, New York rapper/exec Westside Gunn with his half-brother Conway The Machine and their cousin Benny The Butcher –– has been the go-to source for brash, gutter East Coast hip-hop with a flair for expensive art and high-end fashion. Their self-contained, flooded release system — comprising dozens of EPs, mixtapes, and albums — has earned the respect of not only street rap fans, but of acts like Raekwon, Jadakiss, and Fat Joe, the ’90s New York City legends that inspired Griselda’s sound in the first place. And they’ve got the industry in their grips: Their stylish merchandise constantly sells out, and they’ve nabbed management and record deals with JAY-Z’s Roc Nation and Eminem’s Shady Records, respectively.
Griselda kept up their hectic release schedule and their distinctive sound in 2020, but they’ve made this year special with musical and entrepreneurial expansion. Benny The Butcher teamed with producer Hit-Boy for Burden Of Proof, an album that marks the first full departure from Griselda’s signature sound — its soul-sampled grooves recall the glory days of Roc-A-Fella with Kanye West, Just Blaze, and Bink. That album, Westside Gunn’s Pray For Paris, and Conway’s From A King To A GOD teamed them with guests like Big Sean, Lil Wayne, Wale, Dej Loaf, and Tyler, The Creator –– acts completely different from their usual roster of past and present street rap stalwarts steeped in dark vibes and gruff voices.
They also expanded their roster by adding two new artists: stoic Detroit spitter Boldy James followed two of his own releases by signing with Griselda and teaming with young comedian/producer Jay Versace on The Versace Tape, and the label’s first lady Armani Caesar navigates trap beats and lurky productions with equal dexterity on her album THE LIZ. The glow-up is clear enough to show that they can’t be restricted, but don’t think they’ve abandoned what made them great. The label’s eight releases — this list excludes Benny The Butcher’s Black Soprano Family project since it dropped on his label and not on Griselda — are still full of the grimy rap that their fans fell in love with. Look below for a playlist of some of our favorite Griselda songs of the year.
Benny The Butcher - "Burden Of Proof"
"Last year was about branding, this one's about expanding." The opening line to Benny's album signifies that he’s ready to take the next step forward, taking his usual vivid street stories to a newly vibrant, sample-heavy production by Hit-Boy.
Armani Caesar - "Gucci Casket" (Feat. Conway The Machine)
New label signee Armani Caesar sounds just as at home over Griselda’s signature grim production as her crewmates. Above eerie piano keys by JR Swiftz, Armani spits raps about luxury, having shooters on command, and outdoing guys who can’t keep up in the booth or the bedroom.
Conway The Machine & The Alchemist - "Shoot Sideways" (Feat. Schoolboy Q)
Armed with a haunting Alchemist beat and a hoarse, melodic hook by Schoolboy Q, Conway The Machine spits the clever gun-wielding, coke-cooking bars we love from him. "My lil' shooter like A.I., but he been missin' practice," he raps. "But he still scorin' on the opps and he still hittin' baskets."
Benny The Butcher - "War Paint" (Feat. Westside Gunn & Conway The Machine)
Griselda's members are often at their best when they’re united, and "War Paint" shows the crew's three-man nucleus at its best over a magical Hit-Boy sample. Conway steals the show, though: He meets Beyoncé, wonders whether his fianceé's tears are because of his accomplishment or her Hive membership, and poignantly remembers speaking to a doctor after he was shot.
Boldy James - "Monte Cristo"
Jay Versace's beautiful, slinky sample is a fitting backdrop for Boldy James to flex his photographic memory of mixing and cooking coke. It’s not a complicated story, but it's his attention to detail in one verse: He goes through each step of the process like a poetic, visual instruction manual.
Westside Gunn - "Banana Yacht" (Feat. Estee Nack)
"Banana Yacht" shows Westside Gunn at his most creative, even though he has such a small presence on the song. He picks a gorgeous, drumless string arrangement by Denny Laflare and Diamente, and leaves Estee Nack to deliver slow, deliberately laid street bars, as Gunn gives bookending choruses about luxury cars and watches. Gunn is a curator as much as he's an MC, and he's great at it all.
Conway The Machine - "Lemon" (Feat. Method Man)
It's always a pleasure when the new school can inspire the OGs instead of the other way around, and that's exactly what happens on "Lemon." The dark beat sounds straight from an old RZA hard drive, and after Conway has his way with a perfect verse of his own, Meth comes with his hungriest verse in years.
Westside Gunn - "327" (Feat. Joey Bada$$, Tyler, The Creator, & Billie Essco)
In another bit of curatorial brilliance, Westside Gunn calls on Joey Bada$$ and Tyler, The Creator for a collaboration that makes much more sense in ears than on paper. All three members have distinct voices and rhyme styles, but, somehow, all their boasts sound at home over the low-key boom-bap beat by Camoflauge Monk.
Armani Caesar - "Drill a RaMA"
Armani Caesar's triplet flows and the swervy production by Elijah Hooks and JBMG wouldn't normally fit into the Griselda sonic palette, but gender isn't the only way she's diversifying the crew. "Drill a RaMA" sounds more in place with Armani's temporary home in North Carolina, but everyone wins in this standout from THE LIZ.
Benny The Butcher - "Famous"
Benny The Butcher has succeeded beyond most people’s wildest expectations, making his loved ones rich, but he doesn't feel any different: His problems remain, and people's perceptions of him haven't changed. "I chose money over fame, how I end up with 'em both?" he wonders. "I'm just a dealer to the judgе, and a sinner to the Pope." Fame hasn't changed him, and his music has benefited from him staying grounded.
Conway The Machine - "Juvenile Hell" (Feat. Flee Lord, Havoc, & Lloyd Banks)
Juvenile Hell was the first offering of all-time great rap duo Mobb Deep, so the standards are high when resuscitating that title in 2020. Fortunately, Conway The Machine is up to the challenge. On this standout from his album From A King To A GOD, he annihilates a dark beat from the group’s lone living half, Havoc, alongside Flee Lord and a zoned-in Lloyd Banks.
Westside Gunn - "Lil Cease" (Feat. Armani Caesar)
On a track named for the Notorious B.I.G.'s cousin and protégé, Gunn and a hungry Armani Caesar perform Grisleda's unmistakable brand of exultant street rap over a sludging beat by Daringer.
Boldy James - "Long Live Julio"
Boldy James uses a joyful, jazzy sample flip to share fond memories of his childhood, like cleaning his shoes with a toothbrush and splitting a size of pizza with his homie. The threat of violence is always a possibility, but "Long Live Julio" is an uncharacteristically nostalgic song from a usually stoic lyricist.
Westside Gunn - "98 Sabres" (Feat. Armani Caesar, Conway The Machine, & Benny The Butcher)
In this closing number for Westside Gunn's Who Made The Sunshine, the Griselda gang takes on what's perhaps the scariest beat that Just Blaze has ever created to deliver an assault of bar-heavy verses. Armani Caesar boasts of Dolce Gabanna drapes while carrying the East Coast on her back, Benny compares his continued success to NFL kicker Adam Viniateri, and Conway shares the gall to rap alongside the greats. Only thing missing is Boldy James to make the cypher complete.
Westside Gunn - "Good Night" (Feat. Slick Rick)
Slick Rick is known as one of the best storytellers in rap history, and when Westside Gunn has the chance to collaborate with him, they both flex their narrative skills over a melancholy piano run by Daringer and Beat Butcha. Gunn impressively keeps up with a story of getting robbed and avenging the setup, but Rick is still the Ruler, using his laid-back flow to complete the story. Rick doesn't make appearances much at all, but he has two cuts on Gunn’s album — a testament to Griselda's bulletproof reputation.
Stream this playlist on Spotify.