Welcome to Westside Gunn’s last and most skit-heavy album, which helps to build a concept around fashion, mysticism, and psychosis. Poignantly released on Friday the 13th, Gunn’s conjecture is that the banality of evil on the streets comes from paranoid fatigue, not a lack of inspiration but rather overstimulation in an uncaring consumer culture. Westside’s playful darkness is nothing new; the novelty instead relies on the strength of its features and the specificity of its production, which are both momentous.
The typical chest-beating, step up to the podium sets the tone early (“The ancestors are present in our greatness”) but the Stevie Wonder reference on the first track (“God bless the child that’s got its own”) shows the ambition isn’t to take hip-hop a step further into the unknown, but black music more broadly. In this regard the album is a revision of hip-hop heritage, not unlike Ghostface Killah’s ‘Supreme Clientele’, mixing street culture (“Shot a nigga foot and he got hops”) and throwing it back to macho wordplay (“got no peachfuzz”) bearing similies to motivational grit and grind culture (“Blocking it like Clint Capella”) that would make pioneers of those themes like Pusha T stand up and take notice. Still there are some lazy rhyme schemes from Conway The Machine on his first of two guest appearances, but still his lyrics bring an intellectual levity, playing the role of a street disciple to Gunn’s resurrected martyr.
The production through the first half runs like a crime thriller, and very much attuned to a sound recently popularised by the Alchemist with rappers like Freddie Gibbs and Curren$y, who might have excelled on some of these beats. Griselda delivers the typical heaviness, these aren’t club anthems or beats to listen to in the gym, but house party music where things could kick off authentically to the rythm of electrical current like trap-snares. Booming bass car stereo beats calling back to the brutality of Boyz in the Hood.
The mixup style icon culture is nothing new from Gunn (“Gucci MLB jersey”) but the high life violence is a new angle. Rather than pretending he’s above the streets now, Gunn recounts a new set of problems to navigate with the same malice that got him there in the first place (“Left that nigga well done” / “I show her how to butterfly and filet”) interspersing metaphors of haute couture and Scarface style executions. It’s a philosophy against complacency, a testament to Nas’s motto that sleep is the cousin of death and how more money brings more problems, the travails of fame for the self-aware streetwise; The paranoia of the Getoboys projected in the misinformed uncertainty of the 2020’s. The minimal production, along with these sinister and eulogising lyrics works surprisingly well with the menacing auto tune effects on the vocals.
The rite of passage that comes with DJ Drama’s distinctive hype is the only thing to really differentiate his production from Griselda’s, apart from a slightly quicker and lighter tempo than the album’s dark intro.
Even the track names like ‘Suicide in Selfridges’ conjure up a spiritual Viper’s nest of nightmares, delving into the dual edged existential dread of creating music to make a living and surviving the gang violence that comes with the exposed attention. It feels like a worthy soundtrack to the more shockingly memorable, sudden, and cruelly iconic moments from TV shows like the Wire and Gomorrah.
Even the grand piano chords on ‘Kitchen Lights’ are disjointed in keeping with Stove God’s unsettling stop-start flow, his reference to Bill Laimbeer and the Bad Boy Detroit Pistons underscores the vibe; the guest features West assembled for this album are here to disrupt things, to shake the game up and ask questions about the proverbial sacrifice to the travails of hustling and a life of crime, even the closest thing to a hook is the sinister aside to the drug game “I ain’t selling nothing but the whole thing” whether that means uncut, wholesale, or just a ride or die approach to an early grave or a long life behind bars.
Juxtaposing Gucci catwalks with Aircraft carrier runways is Gunn at his most militant since ‘Amherst Station’; he’s a legionnaire of urban warfare, a commando fighting to control rather than get off the street. “I love rap, it changed niggas lives” is the kind of move reminiscent of Kendrick Lamar’s ‘To Pimp A Butterfly’ or Vince Staple’s ‘Ramona Park Broke My Heart’, demonstrating the sardonic coping humour among disadvantaged Black communities during the Obama and Trump administrations respectively. Gunn’s speaking on the vitality of getting back to the grassroots in the confusions and beginnings of a long predicted generational decline under the Biden administration.
Rick Ross comes in with a surprisingly lively and energetic feature; this isn’t his usual laid back and self-congratulatory mafioso take. Instead it’s fight music. But that’s not the most surprising tonal flip the album pulls off. The Tchaikovsky sample at the beginning of ‘House of Glory’, sauntering into a much more soulful beat almost calling back to Bad Boy era Mary J Blige albums, is a brilliant underscore of Gunn’s speciality for biblical imagery as a messiah in the concrete trappings of the projects, “I’m Jesus with the recipe and everything they’re dying to be”.
‘JD wrist’ descends back into the chaos of trap fuelled strove lit shoot outs and reverb programmed keys. It’s Saturday 3am music, not for the feint hearted or sober. And then on the Sunday, as Gunn eponymously reminds us, it’s time for us to repentantly pray.
The reference to 50 Cent’s window shopper as a diss shows how far rap has come from the flashy marketability the Roots used to mock back in the early 2000s, it really is a matter of life and death now, especially as the album fades into ‘Disgusting’. The low ringing church bells on the drum beat work very well for Giggs’ feature and makes you realise how much the tide has turned for UK music as an exporting influence on East Coast creativity, resetting the edges of rap music’s image into a wider frame with darker colours on the spectrum.
The sequencing of tracks is well elided, smoothly digressing and refuting Earl Sweatshirt’s assertion that traditional album structures no longer have a place in rap music. The brass measures in the backing tracks are heavy duty, big band; grandiose and competitive. Ty Dolla $ign’s attempt at melodics doesn’t really fit the mood, but it’s undeniably nice to have a break from such heavy duty lyricism. Gunn’s self reference as “the same nigga who brought you Pray For Haiti” is the album’s watershed moment, laying down the gauntlet and reminding critics who lost faith (myself included) that for better or worse he’s not a passing distraction, he’s an institution; an impressively grim reminder of how hard it can be to build a legacy in the ephemeral modern world.
Even the romantic feminine voices on the album are ready to kill and die. (“Sleep with one eye open, menaced with two AR’s on the bed”) with the tenderness never divorcing itself entirely from the seductive cult of wealth (“I’m a priceless piece of art… I’m a goddess in the bed.”) Boldy James’ preference for intellectual witticisms over an experimental beat with multiple corresponding rhythms is the album’s head banging moment, even if it’s not his best verse, he mentions Dikembe Mutumbo three times and none of them are particularly clever.
The album gets more overtly sexual and threatens to get a bit lazy (“walk through the Louvre looking fancy”) towards the end, but ultimately saves the best for the penultimate track. This album of experimental and layered beats stands out and achieves a legitimate new sound with the bass breaks in ‘The Revenge of Flips Leg’. It’s a sonic crossover; Tim Hardaway, Allen Ivey, Mitch Richmond could drive hard in the paint to this music, and despite another strong guest appearance, West murders this beat in a way he hasn’t done so intrinsically since ‘$500 Ounces’ back in 2020.
The closing track has an element of R&B heartache, and the beat is a fair impression of the style mastered by 9th Wonder’s work with Little Brother and Frank Ocean. Gunn’s tone of voice is completely different, more introspective than confident. “How the hell do I rap on the west side?” is probably the closest he gets to overtly inviting us into the tortured creative process, but it speaks to the identity crisis that pervades the whole album.
In just over an hour, Gunn unravels the traumatic nightmares of modern hip-hop, without ever launching into an ego trip. It’s not just another gangster rap album but essentially a commentary on the psychological fatigue accompanying ruthlessness of the question young black men inherited from Gil Scott Heron; “Who will survive in America?”. This is Westside’s last studio album, it seems like he wants to try other avenues and go out on a high, and while it’s not his best work, it’s the defiant idiosyncratic outlook of one of hip-hop’s most iconic upstarts with all the deserved cockiness of someone who never fell off under pressure to cater to a wider audience.
Words: Philip Cluff