Benny The Butcher Turns Consistency Into A Weapon

John Canon

Benny The Butcher Turns Consistency Into A Weapon

John Canon

Benny The Butcher made the Billboard Hot 100. Last month, after Benny released “Johnny P’s Caddy,” the first song from his new album Tana Talk 4, that song briefly cracked the American pop chart. This definitely wouldn’t have happened if J. Cole, one of the biggest rappers in the world, hadn’t rapped on the song. And even with Cole, it’s not like “Johnny P’s Caddy” ranks as an all-time crossover smash. The song notched one week on the Hot 100 and peaked at #72. Still, for a rapper as resolutely committed to the sounds and virtues of a previous age — one who’s historically been indifferent to things like putting choruses on his songs — that’s some kind of triumph. After slowly bubbling up from the underground for years upon years, Benny The Butcher has something resembling a pop hit, and he achieved that without changing a single fucking thing. That’s inspiring.

“Johnny P’s Caddy” isn’t the first time a Griselda rapper has been on a Hot 100 hit. Last year, Benny The Butcher’s cousins and comrades Westside Gunn and Conway The Machine rapped on Kanye West’s “Keep My Spirit Alive.” Kanye’s Donda album did crazy first-week streaming numbers, and virtually all of its tracks made the Hot 100. “Keep My Spirit Alive” made it to #59, which means it’s technically a bigger hit than “Johnny P’s Caddy.” Still, “Keep My Spirit Alive” doesn’t belong to Westside Gunn and Conway. Since Kanye didn’t even hand out official feature credits on Donda, Gunn and Conway haven’t technically ever had their names on the Hot 100. “Johnny P’s Caddy” is a different story. The song may have gotten a lot of its juice from that J. Cole verse, but it’s Benny’s song, and its small-stakes chart win is Benny’s small-stakes chart win. When Benny got there, he wasn’t window dressing on an A-list rapper’s album track. When he got there, he sounded like himself.

In some ways, “Johnny P’s Caddy” is the ultimate Benny The Butcher song. Benny came up in the world by discussing his own drug-dealing past, building up his own myth in specific and concrete terms, over beats that were fully immersed in ’90s boom-bap sensibilities. When rap stars like Drake have praised Benny in the past, they’ve said that Benny brought back an old feeling. That’s what he’s still doing on “Johnny P’s Caddy.” The song’s Alchemist beat is mournful and contemplative and cinematic, all in-the-pocket snare rolls and hazy chipmunk-soul samples. Benny uses that beat to ruminate on his own come-up, and he makes that narrative plain in the very first lines of the first verse: “This ain’t my story ’bout rags to riches, more ’bout how I mastered physics/ In the game, I used to train like Rocky, catchin’ chickens.”

Even J. Cole’s appearance is a validation of the whole Griselda approach. Cole is present-day rapper in love with the sounds of the ’90s, and he clearly relishes the opportunity to test his pen against someone as hard and respectable as Benny. In interviews, Benny has said that Cole recorded his feature for free — a true mark of esteem, even for a guy who definitely didn’t need the money. The members of Griselda might not be full-on stars, but they’ve got the sort of gravity that attracts stars like Cole.

I don’t want to overstate what Benny The Butcher accomplished with “Johnny P’s Caddy.” It might’ve cracked the Billboard charts, but it’s not a game-changer. It’s a cool song, but it’s not an all-time classic. It solid in the way that a lot of Benny The Butcher tracks are solid. Over the years, Benny’s consistency might be his greatest quality. When Benny and the rest of the Griselda team started bubbling up, I knew I could pick any track, click play, and hear some raw shit with personality. At that time, Griselda already had a serious catalog; they’d been steadily working on a regional level for years. These days, they’re all surging upwards, and they’ve kept that consistency.

A couple of weeks ago, Benny’s cousin Conway released God Don’t Make Mistakes, his first album under the Shady Records deal that he signed way back in 2017. God Don’t Make Mistakes took me by surprise because Conway used the album to get intensely personal; I’d never expected to hear him talking about death and depression and disfigurement in such blunt emotional terms. Thanks to release-date proximity, it’s impossible not to compare Tana Talk 4 to God Don’t Make Mistakes, but the two albums don’t work in the same way. Benny has said that Tana Talk 4 is a personal album, too, but it’s not personal like God Don’t Make Mistakes. Instead, Tana Talk 4 is personal in the same way that every Benny album is personal. It’s full of minute, finely-observed drug-trade observations, but it never gets too deep on an emotional level. That’s not a complaint. Tana Talk 4 is still a great album. It might be Benny’s best.

Tana Talk 4 works because it’s a back-to-basics move for Benny. It’s technically a studio album, but Tana Talk 4 is also an entry in a mixtape series that stretches all the way back to 2004 — 18 years, an eternity in rap time. All of the production on Tana Talk 4 comes from two longtime Benny collaborators, the Alchemist and Daringer, and those two producers handled all the beats on 2018’s Tana Talk 3, as well. (Beat Bucha co-produced a couple of tracks on the new one with Daringer, and he wasn’t on 3, but close enough.) The last time Benny released a full-length, it was 2020’s Burden Of Proof, recorded entirely with the producer Hit-Boy. The album wasn’t bad, but it had the same smoothed-out, prestige-hungry feeling as a lot of Hit-Boy projects. I thought it was a little boring. Tana Talk 4 doesn’t have that problem.

Some of the tracks on Burden Of Proof sounded like they could’ve conceivably been rap-radio hits around 2007. In 2020, those tracks seemed like they were engineered for Grammy nominations, which they did not get. Tana Talk 4 gets back to what I liked about Benny in the first place. Alchemist and Daringer have different styles, but the tracks on Tana Talk 4 fit together, landing on a similar muted-gleam feeling. Most of the album’s guests are peers who work from the same aesthetic framework as Benny. Westside Gunn and Conway are on there, of course, and so are Stove God Cooks and 38 Spesh and Boldy James. Other than J. Cole, there’s only one big-name guest on the album, and he doesn’t actually rap.

“10 More Commandments” is explicitly framed as a sequel to “10 Crack Commandments,” a classic instructional track that Biggie Smalls released almost exactly 25 years ago. Benny doesn’t use the DJ Premier beat from the original, going instead with a Daringer track that doesn’t chase the sound of the original. But “10 More Commandments” does have Biggie’s old friend Diddy shouting triumphant ad-libs — a telling cosign from a guy who was once considered the enemy to guys from the underground-rap circles where Benny got his start. On “10 More Commandments,” Benny gets into the kinds of advice that Biggie either couldn’t or didn’t mention on the original. Benny adds lines about staying away from social media or only buying the kinds of luxury goods that you can later sell: “From a drug dealer’s view, buy a Benz or a chain or two/ Go broke, then sell everything — in a week, you’ll be back like new.”

Benny’s final piece of advice on “10 More Commandments” is to stop selling drugs as soon as the opportunity arises: “The first chance you get, you better get out this shit/ Them old stories how you was gettin’ dough won’t amount to shit/ Can’t feed your child with it when they come wearing jackets with alphabets/ Look around, the smart hustlers the only ones ’round here rich.” On Tana Talk 4, Benny definitely spends plenty of time glamorizing his time in the trenches; it’s his favorite subject. His lines are full of little lived-in details just to make sure you know that he knows what he’s talking about: “I feed my team when I’m bringing in work ’cause that’s how leadership work/ And I don’t trust a fiend ‘less his fingertips burnt.” And Benny also likes to talk like he can get back in the game whenever he wants: “I’m sick of all these fake bosses and temporary soldiers/ I put 20 in a Toyota down in Tempe, Arizona.” But Benny also talks about that past as the reason why he’s never able to relax: “The streets did so much shit to me, I can never live civilly/ I can never leave the scene without checkin’ my mirrors visually.”

Benny stays fixated on the crack economy because he knows it and because he knows that it makes for compelling rap music. It’s an old subject, but it also represents Benny’s own come-up. If you can escape that life and become an internationally recognized recording artist, then that’s a story worth celebrating, and Benny definitely celebrates it: “I make sure everybody eat; yeah, I think like a socialist/ Million dollar empire from a piece of a broken brick.” Maybe that fixation keeps Benny from progressing as an artist, but I don’t really need to hear him progress as an artist. I just want to hear Benny The Butcher rap.

On Tana Talk 4, Benny raps his ass off. His voice is grizzled and authoritative, and he knows how to cut through the languid, expansive beats that he’s chosen. Benny knows how to cast himself as a bad guy, and he’s willing to use current events to establish that position: “I let ’em make me out the villain, I stay poised as Putin be/ Y’all tryna do the pigs’ job, y’all like the boys in blue to me.” The album also features the only cryptocurrency-related bar that I have ever enjoyed: “Before we talk paper, let’s make a simple assessment/ My little crypto investment was probably triple your necklace.” If I don’t object to Benny talking about selling crack to family members, I guess I can’t object to him talking about buying bitcoin, either.

Benny wasn’t part of the Shady Records deal that Westside Gunn and Conway signed, and in a couple of moments on Tana Talk 4, Benny throws little darts in Shady’s direction. (I’m pretty sure that the word “Shady” is bleeped out on “Mr. Chow Hall.”) Last year, Benny inked his own major-label deal, signing with Def Jam. Maybe Def Jam will try attaching a rocket to Benny, or maybe the label will leave him on the shelf forever, the way it sometimes seems to do with talented rappers. Maybe Tana Talk 4 will be Benny’s temporary goodbye to underground rap. Or maybe Benny will just keep making records like Tana Talk 4 forever.

Every once in a while, I think I’m getting bored with Griselda. These guys have been operating on a national stage for more than half a decade, and they’re generally happy to stay within their aesthetic wheelhouse. They fill a specific lane — hard-ass ’90s street bars from guys old enough to remember the ’90s — and they do it well. Whatever the future holds for Benny The Butcher, he’s just made a hearteningly solid piece of underground rap, and he’s done it on a high enough level to actually land on the Billboard charts. That’s not boring. Even if Benny keeps rapping about crack forever, he’s just shown us that he’s still got some surprises left in him.

FURIOUS FIVE

1. Tion Wayne & M24 – “Knock Knock (Remix)” (Feat. Hazey, Sneakbo, Turner, Mist, Jordan, & Trillz CB)
I love it when 15 different rappers show up on UK drill remixes, all of them doing whatever they can to stand out on those mournful and hypnotic beats. I’m still figuring out the best verse on this one, but the one that immediately jumps out is Jordan, a white guy with a thick Cockney accent, suddenly popping up and blustering like this was a Guy Ritchie movie.

2. Latto – “Wheelie” (Feat. 21 Savage)
Is that really Latto twerking while popping a dirtbike wheelie in the video, or is that special effects? I know I shouldn’t care, but I do. Also: This beat is mean.

3. Key Glock – “Pain Killers”
Key Glock came up by rapping alongside his cousin Young Dolph, and Dolph’s not around anymore. But if Glock is worried about his career prospects, I can’t hear it. He’s getting through a tragedy without letting it diminish his confidence one bit. I respect it enormously.

4. Lil Durk – “Golden Child”
I may or may not have more to say about Durk’s new album 7220. For now, I’ll just say that it’s great to hear Durk rapping hard on his own records after he’s done that so well on so many guest verses. Durk is good at emotive-singsong stuff, but I like him so much better in vengeful mode.

5. Sauce Walka, Peso Peso, & Lil Sauce White – “Benihana Taco Sauce”
I feel like I need to know much, much more about Lil Sauce White, a Japanese rapper who raps in Japanese on an underground Texas rap heater. How does that happen? There must be a story. Even if the story is just “Sauce Walka met this guy and thought his voice sounded cool,” I want to know.

IT WAS ALL GOOD JUST A WEEK AGO

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