Photo via stereogum.com

 

4 Stars

The first thing Buffalo emcee Westside Gunn did after beating a nasty bout of coronavirus was prep his newest album, “Pray for Paris,” for release. The album, which dropped this past Friday, features the likes of Griselda labelmates (including his brother) Conway the Machine and Benny the Butcher, as well as artists Tyler, the Creator, Joey Bada$$, Wale, Freddie Gibbs and frequent collaborators Roc Marciano and Keisha Plum.

The album kicks off with the aptly titled “400 Million Plus Tax,” which features an audio snippet from the infamous 2017 Christies auction of the last privately-owned Leonardo da Vinci. The piece, which depicts Jesus making a cross, is titled “Salvator Mundi,” Latin for savior of the world. It’s an interesting choice for opening the album, setting the stage for the opulent scenes to follow, and perhaps mirroring the Griselda group’s endeavor to be known as the symbolic saviors of the rap game. 

The trio’s ear for rich sampling and production is found in an array of legendary producers tapped for the project. Producer The Alchemist worked on “$500 Ounces” and “Clairborne Kick,” while DJ Premier made “Shawn vs. Flair” and in-house producer Daringer perfected “George Bondo” and “Allah Sent Me.” The beats are propelled by a wide range of piano riffs, from ominous to uplifting, interspersed soul samples and boom-bap style drum and bass, which feels dangerous, weighty and like they cost a good deal of money. 

The project is interrupted by a series of tone-setting, often comical samples that center on wealth, power and reflect Westside’s fascination with the world of professional wrestling. I tend to favor the carefully selected samples to skits, as they add to the tone and still allow each song to stand on its own legs. They don’t try to construct an overarching narrative or feed the artist’s ego, as these tropes can often feel played out in the current rap landscape, as in Lil Uzi Vert’s “Eternal Atake.” 

A good illustration of the deft sample selection can be found in the track “George Bondo,” which features the labelmates spitting bars about accruing money, street fights and drug slinging, all over Daringer’s polished piano sample. When the bars end, the track turns to a couple of guys on the street in St. Louis freestyling, repping Westside and using his signature ad-lib in the process. The track “Allah Sent Me” concludes with a similarly smart outro, sampling a WWE wrestler, the Million Dollar Man, as he inquires about the amount of diamonds in his title belt. Another standout is the lurid “$500 Ounces,” which features Freddie Gibbs who, as per usual, nails his verse. The project finds a lighter side in Wale’s featuring track “French Toast,” as well as the Joey Bada$$ and Tyler, the Creator pairing, “327,” and the luscious “Versace.”

Westside himself is careful not to bar the listener to death, often switching from colorful ad-libs to verse and back, never staying in one place for too long, vocally speaking. 

 

Fashion visionary Virgil Abloh designed the album cover as a reworking of Italian painter Caravaggio’s piece “David with the Head of Goliath.” This is interesting not only for its significance but also for its timing, as Griselda recently met with the ever-eccentric Kanye West at his Wyoming ranch, presumably to make some music or iron out a business deal. Kanye has had a feud of sorts going with the fashion designer after he claimed the Louis Vuitton menswear job Virgil had been offered should’ve gone to him. As for the impact this will have on Griselda and their music, it’s likely of little consequence, but it certainly goes to show that with friends like these it’s only a matter of time before the group makes it big.

 

Overall, it’s certainly a more polished project than the average Griselda listener would expect, but not an altogether unexpected step for the label. As far as releases go they’ve seemed to invest more time and money into projects, and it’s proven fruitful for the group considering the two albums prior, “WWCD” and Benny the Butcher’s “The Plugs I Met” both were notable successes with slews of respective underground hits. The grimey production-oriented style seems to be paying off for the group, as “Pray for Paris” has set itself up to be the label’s best release to date.