Despite Griselda Records’ distinct sound now resonating worldwide, in January of this year, label leader Westside Gunn still hadn’t ever left the states. Pray For Paris, the latest instalment in the ever-growing Griselda discography, details the significance of a trip where gritty street-life met fashion royalty.
It was never Gunn’s intention to create something himself when he landed in Paris earlier this year, stepping foot on European soil for the very first time. No stranger to the fashion world, the man was rocking Virgil Abloh’s Off-White label in the days when it was called ‘PYREX VISION’, an obvious choice of attire for a rapper who boasts about his former position in the crack game.
He arrived in the City of Light to attend Fashion Week and hang with Abloh, who he told to write ‘Brick’ on his brick late last year, jokily referring to the theme of the Off-White brand.
It has been Gunn’s mission to blend high-end fashion with music for some time, and you don’t have to dig very deep to hear this message in his music. No really you don’t, DJ Drama spelled it out in no uncertain terms at the start of Westside’s HWH7 project last year – “This is art / Meets fashion / Meets the streets / You can just call it culture”.
This dream may have been fulfilled somewhat when Virgil played “Perfect Plex”, a Gunn and Roc Marciano track, at his Off-White fashion show whilst a man tap-danced and models cat-walked. Brags of cutting people’s necks off, and as Marciano puts it “devilish endeavours”, are not commonplace in the fashion world, but somehow Gunn’s charm and persistent vision for Griselda make it feel like it could be.
The allure of the French capital instantly inspired the Buffalo rapper, and he made six songs in the space of two days during his time there. However, with his idea of ‘art meeting streets’ forever central to his plans, he knew the tracks weren’t gritty enough to release as an EP, and flew back to the States to craft them into an album.
The idea that Griselda is an underground powerhouse is getting harder to uphold, because for a clique whose music is unforgivingly raw, they are currently rolling with some of hip-hop’s biggest players. This means that acquiring an ensemble of respected MCs for Pray For Paris was easy-work for Gunn, with a few tracks gaining particular attention after he leaked the tracklist to Instagram.
The very essence of Pray For Paris is captured in the opening skit, “400 Million Plus Tax”, which is audio taken from the record sale of the Leonardo da Vinci painting ‘Salvator Mundi’.
The sale of this Renaissance piece to a Saudi prince, and the substantial applause that follows, not only shows the electricity that lavish purchases can produce, but also the value of art that has been rediscovered and renovated. This is somewhat Westside Gunn’s approach to music, which in its own way is bringing grimy 90s boom-bap back and making it more flamboyant than ever.
No Griselda project would be complete without features from Gunn’s brother Conway The Machine, and cousin Benny The Butcher. The two display their talent on “George Bando“, which sounds quintessentially Griselda, with in-house beatmakers Daringer and Beat Butcha handling production.
Similarly, on “Allah Sent Me”, it’s Daringer’s foreboding keys that supply the trio with yet another haunting beat to add to their collection. Here the three are trading bar for bar, finishing each other’s verses like we’ve seen before on tracks like “Chef Dred’s”.
Those who find Gunn’s nasally tone off-putting may wish to look the other way here, as he whines like never before in a swirl of constant gunshot adlibs. This is at least until Conway steps in, referring to himself and Gunn as ‘Hall and Nash’, an unstoppable tag-team in the 90’s Wrestling explosion.
It’s not the first time the Buffalo trio have lovingly paid homage to the WWF, however Gunn recently voiced his distaste for the WWE’s most recent event. Benny jumps in and it’s business as usual, “N***** know my flow sacred as a hundred chapels”.
Undoubtedly the album’s most hyped song, “327” sees an unexpected collaboration with Joey Bada$$ and Tyler The Creator, with Billie Essco on chorus duties. Buffalo producer Camoflauge Monk lays down a sense of tranquillity on this one, and Gunn starts the track sharp – “I’m rockin’ old Nashes, on the runway in my coke fashion / Anybody move, we toe-taggin“.
A particularly nostalgic verse from Joey fits the beat perfectly, and we hear him talk about how he went from getting kicked out of class to sitting in a Maybach with Puff and Hov. Tyler takes it back too, his verse suggestive of his Odd Future days with a flow that switches impulsively.
With a line-up of this calibre, a track like this might never disappoint, and part of its enjoyment may stem from simply admiring the unforeseen link up. This is the highlight of the album for sure.
Owing to his tendency to share tracks with some big spitters, Gunn can occasionally be overlooked when it comes to rapping. “Claiborne Kick” reunites Detroit’s Boldy James with The Alchemist, after the two came together earlier this year on “The Price Of Tea In China”. Boldy steals the show here with his different way of rhyming, providing a moment of clarity on a holy-sounding Alchemist loop.
Gunn holds his own on “$500 Ounces”, and this horn-heavy, soulful beat from The Alchemist serves him well when he’s rapping in thug mode. Meanwhile Freddie Gibbs asks “Why she wanna stick me for my paper?”, citing Biggie to acknowledge some baby mama trouble. Roc Marciano’s monotone approach fits well here too, and his drawling brags tee up Gunn’s verse nicely.
It was during his time in Paris that Westside met fellow self-proclaimed new ‘king of New York’, Pop Smoke. “When we linked, it was love” Gunn told Complex, “you could see the kid in him”. The late rapper is honoured in “Party Wit Pop Smoke“, an emotionally charged track that begins to round off the album. “It was only right that I show him love”, Gunn laments.
Tyler The Creator reminds listeners that he grew up on Ye and Doom, by sampling the New Orleans funk group Apple and The Three Oranges on the track. The main vocal from their track “Moonlight” is looped over some soft strings, while Gunn erratically touches on everything from cocaine to a French Romantic artist. Griselda poet Keisha Plum later offers her insight into how she can see the good in bad men, her voice as delicate and pure as ever.
Pray For Paris is the most recognisable thing Gunn has done yet, in his crusade to blend street culture and art. Being labelled simply a ‘rapper’ is out of the question for a man who sees himself transcending the typical hip-hop path.
If Virgil’s use of Griselda’s music on his runway was bridging the gap, then his rebranding of a Caravaggio piece for the album artwork might be enough to turn a few heads, and cause a new audience to take note of the waves Griselda are making.
Every clique needs a Westside Gunn, to pull strings and push boundaries. When you consider the groups’ unlikely ascent into the limelight, he’s making an impossible task look so easy.
Westside Gunn’s Pray For Paris is out now on Griselda Records, purchase it on iTunes here and stream it on Spotify below.
Words by By Kyle Roscoe