Griselda Records is taking no prisoners in 2020. From Conway The Machine’s recent collaborative Lulu EP with The Alchemist, to their latest signing Boldee Jame’s The Price of Tea in China album, (also with The Alchemist) it is frightening to think what the group has left in store. Exceptional projects serve as a thorough reminder that music is art and art is music. Westside Gunn has publicly shared via his instagram to never call him a rapper, since he is an artist; I have no objections to his request. Gunn’s latest, Pray For Paris album exemplifies just that, with the cover art responsibility handed to Off-White CEO Virgil Abloh. The cover is specifically an edit of Italian painter Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio’s David with the Head of Goliath painting, with Virgil adding two iced-out necklaces. One necklace is a Jesus Piece and emblem of Westside Gunn as a child; whereas, the other features his present self with a rightful crown on his head. The album’s run time is a balanced forty-one minutes and nineteen seconds, with twelve tracks total not counting the epic “400 Million Plus Tax” introduction, which gave me heavy Uncut Gems PTSD. Ironically, Tyler The Creator mentions Josh Safdie on “327,” referencing the Safdie Brother’s film Good Times: “And they only wanna have good times like Josh Safdie.” The introduction is titled as such because the album is being auctioned at Christie’s, with the winner Alex Rotter paying a staggering four hundred million-plus tax. While Westside Gunn does not require any guests to produce a solid body of work, the features on the album are eye dropping, consisting of Joey Bada$$, Tyler the Creator, Joyce Wrice, Wale, Roc Marciano, Freddie Gibbs, Billie Essco, Keisha Plum, Cartier A. Williams, and his Griselda peers, Benny The Butcher, Conway the Machine, and Boldy James. Just as incredible is the production, which truly is no surprise; if you are a follower of Griselda’s, you know their beat selection is always A1. Nonetheless, the full production lineup is legendary to say the least, with DJ Muggs, Daringer, Beat Butcha, (aka Benny the Butcher) Camouflage Monk, Conductor Williams, Alchemist, Jay Versace, DJ Premier, Tyler the Creator, and Bohemia Lynch listed in chronological order.
After spinning the album a minimum five times over, my favorite tracks are definitively “Allah Sent Me,” “327,” “George Bondo,” and “Shawn vs. Flair.” However, there are no bad tracks; the entire album is a painting depicted within a painting, hence the need to fully listen to the project front to back. On “George Bondo,” the Daringer and Beat Butcha produced joint is a triple threat trifecta consisting of Griselda’s core: Westside Gunn, Conway the Machine, and Benny The Butcher. With classic banging drums and looped piano keys on the instrumental, the penmanship displayed between all three Griselda emcees makes it near-impossible to crown a winner, with each artist offering their own craftsmanship for perfection. However, the standout line that left me speechless was from Conway, who professed: “If thou steal from Flygod, that’s a sin, it ain’t another rapper that’s alive that can match my pen, back again, MAC clap your men, stack the half an M, I was him, before you ever heard me on a track with Em.” When it comes to Griselda, everything is authentic; through their confidence alone you can tell any experiences shared are backed by skin in the game. On “327,” the Camouflage Monk produced record is the most mellow song on the album, recruiting heavy hitters Joey Bada$$ and Tyler the Creator, along with Buffalo native Billie Essco. What I love most about this particular record is that I never would have imagined hearing a collaboration between the three artists, yet alone one as polished at it sounds. Gunn, Joey, and Tyler all find a way to implement their differentiated styles, while simultaneously blending them to mesh well with Monk’s blessed offering. While Westside surgically dissects the instrumental, Joey effortlessly floats, with Tyler once more showcasing his capability of being an emcee when he wants to be.
Transitioning to “Allah Sent Me,” this highlighted track is undeniably my personal favorite. With Daringer on the boards, Westside, Conway, and Benny practically exchange alley-oops to one another by way of purposeful interruption throughout their lines to complete them. Daringer’s production is a major reason for this track being my favorite; the echoing instrumental invokes a haunting sensation as if something ominous is brewing. Something one would only picture in the finest of mafia and action films, an unforgettable line from this record is when Westside Gunn unapologetically confesses: “Ayo, Burberry London, trenches coverin’ the Russians, blew the ni*** head off and walked off like it’s nothin.” Another absurd bar is when Conway the Machine states: “Yeah, we (Griselda) the last of the hard rappers, feds ain’t find work but found the garbage full of soft rappers.” A furious Ted Dibiase, aka ‘The Million Dollar Man’ portrayal clip is played for the outro, in which the WWE legend continually makes demands to a stressed jeweler for the preparation of his championship belt. Dibiase eventually remarks: “Look, you had your price to take on this endeavor, and everyone knows when the Million Dollar Man wants something, he gets it the way he wants it. I always get what I want (hahahaha).” Completely unrelated, but once more my mind drifted to Uncut Gems, particularly the scene where Kevin Garnett meets Adam Sandler for his opal gemstone. Perhaps the next Safdie Brothers creation will consider featuring this fitting masterpiece of a record into their next film!
Last but not least, “Shawn vs. Flair” is produced by the legend DJ Premier, who has had an absolute beast of a year to say the least! Premo’s production on the song is exactly what you’d expect; signature boom-bap drums with immaculate scratches. The title pays homage to WWE legends Shawn Michaels and Ric Flair’s matchup at Wreslemania XXIV, but the song’s concept is truly referencing Westside Gunn’s remarkable transformation from being a prison inmate to a creative icon. DJ Premier’s scratch usage is brilliant per usual, implementing Prodigy vocals that pronounce “another war story from a thirsty young hustler,” followed by a Phife Dawg “once the pen hits the pad it’s danger” exclamation. On the chorus, Westside Gunn asks: “Ayo you ever ate burgers on a Wednesday? You ever ate chicken on a Thursday,?” in which he revealed (via his Twitch channel) that these two lines refer back to his time locked up, where burgers would be served to inmates on Wednesdays, and chicken on Thursdays. Overall, Pray for Paris is an album that immediately caught my attention and solidified itself into my favorite projects of 2020 so far. With perhaps the hardest musical cover art ever, and an unquestionable dream-team lineup of producers plus features, Westside Gunn put the nail in the coffin by simply holding his own, reminding listeners that this body of work is by him. Griselda Records are a prime example of what sheer specialists sound like; the group’s subject matter may often remain the same, but it is always delivered with credibility and value. Something tells me that this is only the beginning for Westside Gunn and the rest of the Buffalo, New York crew. Enjoy the full album below!
Words by Brandon Washington