Conway The Machine Builds A Legacy

Jawad Mahmood

Conway The Machine Builds A Legacy

Jawad Mahmood

When Beanie Sigel shows up on “Lock Load,” the first song from Conway The Machine’s new album God Don’t Make Mistakes, you might not recognize his voice. There’s a reason for that. Beanie Sigel now has only one lung. In 2014, Beanie was shot while walking his kids to school in Pleasantville, New Jersey. According to police, Beanie wasn’t the intended target. Doctors had to remove a lung, and Beanie’s voice is now a weary whisper-wheeze. Beanie Sigel is one of the greatest rappers who has ever lived, and he was a key part of the Roc-A-Fella empire when that label was at his peak, but Beanie never escaped the traumatic street life that he rapped about so vividly. His hardships are right there in his voice. But when Beans raps on “Lock Load,” even he sounds slightly awed when talking about Conway The Machine: “Dance with the devil, the death call/ I’m out the Buff with the slanted-face killer with Bell’s Pals.”

Bell’s Palsy is the first thing that most people noticed about Conway The Machine. In 2012, before Conway started his rap career, he was shot, and half of his face was left paralyzed. A few years later, when Conway came up alongside his brother Westside Gunn and the rest of the Buffalo crew Griselda, his face became famous. Conway would’ve stood out anyway. Griselda had a definite identity; they make grimy ’90s-style New York street-rap that draws on the specifics of street life. Conway is a natural at that. His voice is husky and commanding. His lyrics are detailed and granular. He can convey desperation without sounding desperate and bloodthirst without sounding theatrical. He comes off calm and in-control. But Conway’s clearly visible wounds have also given him a certain authority. Gun-talk sounds different when it’s coming from someone who’s really been shot and who wears the evidence on his face everyday.

Five years ago, when Griselda was still an up-and-coming cult phenomenon, the label signed a deal with Eminem’s Shady Records. The combination made sense. Eminem is a ’90s rap die-hard, and Griselda is the type of bone-hard underground institution that he loves to elevate. But there didn’t seem to be much crossover between Em’s late-period stadium-rap style and the guttural, damaged boom-bap coming from Griselda. I worried about Griselda switching up their style to meet Eminem’s audience, but it didn’t happen. The principal Griselda figures just kept cranking out music that was almost defiant in its lack of commercial appeal, and that music kept coming out on their own label, not on Shady. Big-name guests like 50 Cent might show up on tracks from time to time, but Griselda wasn’t catering to anyone. The strategy worked. Slowly, over time, Griselda found its niche within the mainstream rap world. Conway kept rapping about being harder than anyone else, and he did it without changing his identity in the slightest.

Up until now, the Shady/Griselda deal has been more theoretical than anything. Only one Griselda album, the 2019 group effort WWCD, actually came out on Shady Records. Conway kept cranking out music with slightly uneven results. I thought 2020’s From A King To A God was just slightly sleepy and watered-down — still hard, but not quite exciting. (From A King To A God is supposedly Conway’s first proper album, as if there’s a functional difference between albums and mixtapes.) But Conway could still sound inspired, too; I really liked his two collaborative albums with producer Big Ghost. Last week, Conway finally released God Don’t Make Mistakes, the Shady Records debut that he’s been promising for a couple of years. I was worried that this would be more of the respectable, mainstream-adjacent version of Conway, and I listened to the album mostly out of duty. But God Don’t Make Mistakes is a whole lot more than I expected. It’s something special.

In some ways, God Don’t Make Mistakes is the Shady Records debut that you might expect from Conway The Machine. The beats are grim, clanking boom-bap. The tracks often lack choruses. The guests are either Buffalo peers or seasoned veterans of past rap eras, all of whom are just as middle-aged as Conway. (One of those guests is T.I., who hasn’t been on the featured-rapper circuit since all those allegations of sexual assault came out. It sucks to hear him on this. The Griselda guys have never presented themselves as being particularly conscientious, but T.I.’s voice now carries a bad vibe.) Conway even built up to the album’s release by releasing the solid mixtape Greetings Earthlings on DatPiff, like it was still 2008.

The God Don’t Make Mistakes single “John Woo Flick” is vintage Griselda — Conway teaming up with Westside Gunn and Benny The Butcher, everyone discussing their own propensity for violence. (Conway gets the best line: “Daringer compared to RZA/ I’m compared to n***as that’ll stab you in your face with a pair of scissors.”) In the video, Conway cradles a baby in one hand and a gun in the other, like Chow Yun-Fat in Hard-Boiled — further proof that Conway’s ’90s frame of reference extends beyond rap music. There are a lot of gun-sound ad-libs all across God Don’t Make Mistakes. This is the Griselda playbook at work. It’s solid and satisfying and unsurprising.

Conway is good at this kind of mean, ugly lived-experience throwback-rap. He’s a 40-year-old rapper making rap music for people who are the same age that he is. (I’m 42, so this is not a complaint.) As a writer, Conway has always leaned in hard on the bleak, grisly details of crime life, and he’s good at painting verbal pictures: “Water turned off in that trap, fuck it, the stove workin’/ Pour Poland Springs in that pot, cook up the Os perfect.” That’s really what Conway has always done. But on the best moments of God Don’t Make Mistakes, Conway goes deeper, talking about the heavy emotional weight of his own experiences. Conway might call himself the Machine, but on God Don’t Make Mistakes, he sounds more human than ever.

Conway has a long history of nodding in the direction of pathos but keeping it moving. On this album, though, Conway gets into how hard and sad this life can be. Sometimes, he’s talking about friends: “Gave my n***a life, I know it hit him on that prison van/ You don’t know the feeling of never seein’ your kid again/ And it’s a Russell Wilson-type n***a raisin’ your little man.” Elsewhere, Conway focuses on himself, bringing up a moment of deep and overwhelming tragedy: “Not too long’ after my cousin hung hisself/ I never told nobody, but I lost a son myself/ Imagine bein’ in the hospital, holdin’ your dead baby/ And he look just like you, you tryna keep from goin’ crazy.” There’s no wisdom to be gained from an experience like this. This isn’t street-survival talk. This is pure, naked grief.

There’s a lot of grief on God Don’t Make Mistakes. Conway talks about being laid up in a hospital bed, waiting for doctors to tell him whether he’ll ever walk or talk again. He talks about getting kicked in the stomach as an infant and about the staples that are still in his stomach from that injury. He talks about depression and addiction. He talks about living with Bell’s Palsy and about what that can do to your soul: “They like, ‘Why you stressed? Boy, you blessed’/ They don’t know about the nights where I can’t even get rest/ Burnin’ this kush while I pace/ Cryin’ in the mirror every time I look at my face.”

I haven’t been through any of those experiences, but I’m going through my own shit right now, and God Don’t Make Mistakes hit me pretty hard. I thought I was used to Conway’s music. I thought I got it. On this album, though, Conway gets real and vulnerable in ways that I never expected. God Don’t Make Mistakes ends with the Alchemist-produced title track where Conway reflects on the night that he was shot. He wonders what might’ve happened if things had turned out differently, and he considers the idea that his injuries might’ve made his music resonate more: “Sometimes I wonder: If this Bell’s Palsy didn’t paralyze my grill in/ Would there still be murals of my face painted on side of buildings?/ I mean, would I still be rhymin’ brilliant?/ They say I provide the feeling, but would my story still inspire millions?” As the song ends, we hear the voice of Conway’s mother asking him to come back to her. It’s heavy, and it’s powerful.

To an outsider, Conway’s whole story looks triumphant. He recovered from those gunshots, and he made it as a rapper. At this point, he’s got songs with Jay-Z, Kanye West, Eminem, and practically all of his ’90s role models. Conway is making his major-label debut at age 40, something that would’ve been unthinkable in the recent past. He now gets to do crazy shit like bringing in Jill Scott to rap about sex on his album. But Conway has also been through unimaginable pain, and by addressing that pain head-on, he’s opened up whole new dimensions in his music. God Don’t Mistakes may or may not not make Conway more famous. That really shouldn’t matter to most of us. Conway has made a record that can touch your soul. Whatever Conway’s commercial fate might be, he should be proud of this album for the rest of his life.

FURIOUS FIVE

1. Shordie Shordie – “Leave”
I spent the past weekend in Baltimore for my father’s funeral. It was a weird, sad, unreal experience, and I’m grateful for every little bit of comfort that I found up there. One comfort that I wasn’t expecting was hearing Baltimore accents everywhere. Baltimore accents get clowned, but I love them. They sound like home to me. Shordie Shordie, arguably the most popular Baltimore rapper in history, has taken the sound of that accent and applied it to slippery, hypnotic Auto-Tune sing-rap, and that’s a beautiful thing.

2. Elzhi & Georgia Anne Muldrow – “Strangeland”
I don’t really know what to expect from Elzhi and Georgia Ann Muldrow’s forthcoming collaborative album, but if it’s just Muldrow feeding hard, pretty, funky beats to Elzhi and letting him annihilate them, I’m on board.

3. BabyTron – “Chess Players” (Feat. DaBoii)
The connection between the Bay and Detroit remains strong. Here, we get two of the most reliably energetic rappers from those two cities tossing lines back and forth, and it’s exactly what it needs to be. These two should make a whole album together.

4. Rubi Rose – “I Like”
This song is catchy fun on its own, but the cartoon-ass Twisted Sister video puts it over the top. Every music video should be as ridiculous as this one. It’s like we’ve forgotten how to have fun.

5. Flo Milli – “PBC”
Flo Milli’s last couple of singles felt like clumsy pander-moves that diluted her sneering mean-girl appeal, and “PBC” teeters in that direction. But when she sinks her teeth into that beat switch, I stop worrying.

IT WAS ALL GOOD JUST A WEEK AGO

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