Westside Gunn’s ‘Pray for Paris’ proves that boom bap rap never left

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You can’t talk about Westside Gunn without talking about Griselda Records. Co-founded in Buffalo, New York by Gunn and his brother, Conway the Machine, Griselda Records has been one of the biggest surprises of the last decade. In a landscape where melodies and trap beats saturate the market, Griselda’s style is a throwback to the Golden Era. Back when flipping soul samples were the name of the game, and when New York ruled the airwaves.

There’s been a lot of discourse in rap music about its evolution in the last decade or so, and what it means for the culture going forward. Many boom bap enthusiasts have worried about the genre moving from its roots and it’s not hard to see why. Old school rap has become the new “Dad Rock.” For newer fans of the genre, they’d rather listen to music different from what their parents listened to. It’s why artists like Young Thug and Travis Scott have been successful. With industry co-signs ranging from Drake to Virgil Abloh (creator of Off-White), Griselda gave NY hip hop a second wind. It’s something worth noting and at the center of all that is Westside Gunn.

Westside Gunn, compared to his labelmates Conway the Machine and Benny the Butcher, is the showman of the crew. On top of rapping bars about the gritty street life and high fashion, his bombastic adlibs and quirky personality separates him from his peers. His nasally, high-pitched voice and delivery is very reminiscent of Ghostface Killah. Also, the open enthusiasm Gunn has for pro wrestling gives him an eccentric appeal. Much of the album’s production was handled by Daringer, whose sample-heavy aesthetic is similar to guys like The Alchemist and Just Blaze.

Spliced between songs are skits ranging from the aforementioned old school pro wrestling to his kid. There were some that were cringeworthy like the corny beat boxing on “George Bondo.” On the previously mentioned track which features Conway and Benny, the chemistry between the three is evident. Through out the album it feels like Westside Gunn’s at his best when playing off another lyricist. On “George Bondo” specifically every verse seemed to out do the last in wordplay and cleverness.

On “327” we get an interesting verse from Tyler the Creator where he’s openly rapping about his trysts with men and living his best life. In comparison to the rest of the album Tyler’s verse sounds almost anachronistic. It’s also a mark of how much hip hop as a culture has evolved the last few years. Billie Essco’s sleepy vocals on the hook are reminiscent of Trae The Truth.

“French Toast” features a cheery and head bobbing piano sample that rings throughout the song. Wale’s charisma shines as he drops slick bars that include a flattering nod to Buffalo Bills’ legend Steve Tasker. Also, in classic Wale fashion, he brags about his ever-expanding sneaker collection. Despite Gunn’s singing on the hook was grating, the fourth-wall-breaking interlude that ended the track was hilarious.

On “$500 Ounces” with Freddie Gibbs & Roc Marciano we get a backpacker’s dream collab. A menacing horns sample roar as each of the three MC’s wax poetic about the ups and downs of hustling. Freddie Gibbs’ voice exudes an aura of ruthless indifference as he raps about betrayal and moving on from it. In Roc Marciano’s verse in particular he strings together several bars displaying excellent wordplay. Marciano is simultaneously using a machine gun-like rhyme scheme as he tells the story of a drug deal gone bad. Gunn who closed out the song still made his presence known as he gives a fair warning to people who dare step to him.

Westside Gunn displays rock-solid ability as a lyricist, but he doesn’t really switch up his flow or cadence for much of the album. It’s obvious that he follows a template that’s works for him. The only times we see him deviate from that is on cuts like “Euro Step” and “Claiborne Kick,” especially on the latter track where Gunn uses a more stilted flow. That being said, the fact that half of the album was made when Westside Gunn battled COVID-19 is a testament to his craft.

“Pray for Paris” was an album that started out hot but ultimately fizzled out. Lack of variance in flows and or rhyme schemes made the latter half of the album a chore to get through. Overall “Pray for Paris” won’t blow you away but it’s a solid update to NY Hip Hop.

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