Album Review — Westside Gunn’s ‘WHO MADE THE SUNSHINE’

Out of the Big Three of Griselda, it feels like Westside Gunn is the least heralded. It’s not a big surprise, as his style isn’t as accessible as Benny the Butcher and nor as lyrically compelling as Conway the Machine. But with his major label debut album WHO MADE THE SUNSHINE, Gunn has delivered what I arguably believe to be his best project yet. It shows what he’s best at and that’s delivering exciting flash.

“Sunshine Intro” leads off the album and not only sets the tone of it well with the eery beats, but it also features AA Rashid explaining the duality of lightness and darkness. It’s an interesting introduction that gives way to one of my favorite songs of 2020, “The Butcher and The Blade.” Paying homage to the AEW tag team of the same name (who also originate from Buffalo, New York like Griselda), the beat of this song is downright nasty. The exasperated exclaim of “fuck” at the beginning of the song is such a nice summation of how great this song is. It’s the standard Griselda joint, as each of the big three absolutely split fire over a swirling and surrealistic piano-driven beat. Big props to producers Daringer and Beat Butcha. And while each rapper on this song sounds great, Conway’s verse is absolutely incredible and further shows why he’s the lyricist king of the trio.

Gunn is joined by the iconic Black Thought on “Ishkabibble’s” and as always Black Thought delivers excellent bars. Also I’m impressed as always by his flow, as it’s just so smooth and flawless. Gunn holds his own though too and it’s one of many examples on this album show how when Gunn focuses he can be just as great as his Griselda brothers and the high-profile guests on this album. Boldy James and Jadakiss join “All Praises.” This song took a few listens to grow on me, as it just didn’t feel as strong as other songs on the album. It also has the misfortune of following up two great songs. James’ delivery still isn’t the most compelling to me, as I find it to be a bit stilted and dry for me. Jadakiss though sounds great, as his grimy delivery and solid bars add some much needed grit to this more polished sounding track.

“Big Basha’s” is the only solo Gunn track on the album and I wish we would have gotten more of this on the album. While the guest features on this are excellent, they also overshadow Gunn many times and it feels like he’s lost in his own album. It doesn’t help either that this song is so short too. Despite this song’s shortness, Gunn demonstrates great storytelling on the song, describing a grizzly scene that is common when drug deals go bad. “Liz Loves Luger” is the most controversial track on the album and that’s because it’s about Gunn busting a nut. And we also get to graphically hear him receiving this. Yeah, not something most people want to hear. But props to Armani Caesar for delivering a great feature, as she flows so naturally over the beat.

“Ocean Prime” is so slick and we get to hear two amazing features on opposite ends of the spectrum in terms of delivery. First you have Busta Rhymes, who just goes absolutely ham over the beat. His crazy, frenetic, high energy he brings is so infectious. This is followed up by the legendary Slick Rick, who is the definition of cool, calm and collected with his delivery. I find it really cool to hear such differing deliveries in one song and how the versatility in styles in hip hop is what makes it so compelling. “Lessie” is one of my least favorite songs on the album, as it’s just not memorable lyrically and Keisha Plum’s spoken word features never really do anything for me.

“Frank Murphy” is a whopping eight minutes long and based on this runtime, your mileage will vary with this track. The production from Conductor Williams is without a doubt fantastic. It’s dirty, bleeding horns-driven beat is so much fun and it’s a sound you won’t forget after hearing it. It’s a long feature list on the track, but for me Stove God Cooks and Flee Lord deliver the best verses, as they bring the fire and intensity necessary for such a dominating beat. Gunn’s charisma shines well over the beat too. But I just don’t really see why this needed to be this long of a song. It’s not terrible, but it could have sounded just as great if not better at four minutes, as you run the risk of burning the listener out on such a long track with a beat, while compelling, that is also same-y sounding throughout.

“Good Night” features the best storytelling and lyrics on the album, as Gunn and Slick Rick tell an exciting story about a drug deal gone wrong between Gunn and a dealer and his cousin, who’s a rookie cop. The beginning of the song is from Gunn’s perspective and then later Rick comes in with the rookie cop’s side of the story. There’s so many twist and turns throughout the story, so be sure to listen to this until the end. And I’m glad to hear Slick Rick get an extended verse on this track, he once again delivers some cool, hard-hitting bars.

“98 Sabers” is the final track on the album and man does this record go out with an absolute bang. Just Blaze produces an absolute filthy, evil beat that shows why he’s one of the most respected producers in hip hop. Then Gunn, Caesar, Conway and Benny all sound their best, as it feels like each are trying to outdo the other. Everything about this song just feels epic, as it just keeps building and building, never letting up like “Monster” from Kanye’s My Beautiful, Dark Twisted Fantasy. It’s by far one of the best songs I’ve heard from Gunn.

WHO MADE THE SUNSHINE is a really fun album that’s enjoyable from front to back. Westside Gunn really steps up his game in his major label debut and shows why Griselda is the fastest rising group in hip hop. This album won’t compete for my top hip hop album of the year, but it’s definitely a record that is worthy of being in rotation for a long time and there are two songs on this album that absolutely belong on the best songs of the year list (“The Butcher and The Blade” and “98 Sabers”).

Grade: 8/10

Album Review — Conway the Machine’s ‘From King To A GOD’

While it feels like most of hip hop is going pop, the Griselda group is perfectly content doing what they do best and that’s delivering some of the grimiest beats and hardest hitting bars in the game. While all three of Benny The Butcher, Westside Gunn and Conway the Machine all bring something great to the table, it feels like Conway in particular has had a rapidly rising 2020. All of his features have been standouts and he delivered a really solid project in LULU with The Alchemist (I haven’t even got a chance to listen to No One Mourns the Wicked yet). So now he’s released what he’s dubbing his debut album in From King to a GOD and it’s without a doubt a fantastic debut from an artist who is quickly establishing himself as one of the best lyricists in hip hop.

The voice of zen writer and speaker Alan Watts greets you on opener “From King,” which is definitely a nice surprise. Conway then does his thing and that’s drop hard hitting bars that set the tone for the album well. And the song ends with a sample of a Kevin Nash promo/Tony Schiavone commentary in WCW because it’s a Griselda album of course. It’s a great opener because I’ll remember it and it makes me want to hear more. Next is “Fear of God,” where Conway has a great, smooth flow and the DeJ Loaf feature fits the song’s attitude, capping off the song with a nice touch.

I really enjoy the griminess of “Lemon,” although the hook is a bit weak. But the bars hit hard, Conway’s delivery is emphatically great and Method Man absolutely kills his verse. His weathered, deep voice matches perfectly with the dark beats. Any other album and this should be easily the best feature, but this album is loaded with amazing guest features. “Dough & Damani” is produced by The Alchemist and of course it’s smooth as hell. Conway and The Alchemist have such great chemistry. Conway also features his more humorous side on this song, which is enjoyable. I particularly enjoy the short kit around two guys arguing over who gets to hold the gun.

“Juvenile Hell” is not only my favorite song on the album, but maybe my favorite song I’ve ever heard from Conway. First the beat on this is absolutely filthy and does 90s boom bap absolutely proud. Then you have the features from Flee Lord, Havoc and Lloyd Banks. Each one of them bring absolute fire, but Banks steals the show with his appearance. His flow over the beat is absolutely flawless and the wordplay is brilliant. The line I really enjoy is “I’m on my rivals, embarrass ‘em with my calm bravado/My alma mater of smackin’ a n**** horizontal.”

Next is the first “Words of Shay” interlude and it’s cool to hear these words from Conway’s close friend DJ Shay, who is unfortunately revealed to be dead later in the album on Conway’s tribute to him on “Forever Droppin Tears.” And I should point out that the title is not just an expression of Conway’s sadness over the passing of his friend, but also a reference to Shay talking about in the interludes how Conway cries when recording songs. So it doubles as Conway’s showing of passion. The song itself is an absolutely beautiful tribute with lots of heartfelt lyrics and great storytelling of the relationship between Shay and Conway. It’s all set over a bouncy and classy beat from Hit-Boy and El Camino adds a lot with his feature. But I will say I don’t think the third interlude was really necessary, as I think the tribute was good as is with just two interludes. Still it doesn’t take away much from one of the highlights of this album.

“Front Lines” is Conway’s take on the civil unrest and Black Lives Matter movement that took place this past summer and the systemic racism that has been taking place for years. Conway does a fantastic job laying out all the issues and once again his storytelling lyricism really shines, particularly when he’s describing how routine police stops quickly turn to violence for many black Americans. The song ends with a clip of a news report of when protesters broke into the Minnesota police precinct this past summer and this definitely fits the song, but I feel it goes a bit too long and smaller clip would have been more effective.

“Anza” is the weakest song of the album, as it’s pop-ish flavor is such a stark contrast to the rest of the record’s sound and sticks out like a sore thumb. It just doesn’t fit and while Armani Caesar is a great MC, her feature is a bit boring. All around this song just doesn’t work within this album. “Seen Everything But Jesus” gets back on the right track though and grows on me more and more with each listen. Conway is joined by Freddie Gibbs and as always Gibbs delivers. A nice surprise we get from Gibbs though is some singing in addition to his always hard-hitting bars. While he seemed to always be joking when doing this earlier in his career, his singing is actually pretty good and I wouldn’t mind hearing him take on some R&B songs. Even his more humorous singing moments are fun (see “FLFM” off Freddie).

“Spurs 3” is the traditional Griselda joint on all Griselda albums and like a Gibbs feature, you can always count on this to be great. The dark and eccentric beat is lively and engaging, with each of Conway, Westside Gunn and Benny The Butcher flowing well over it. Although I am a bit surprised that Benny is weakest sounding on this track, as usually he’s the best technical rapper of the trio (Gunn is more about flash and Conway is the sharp lyricist). Nonetheless it’s a solid track.

“Jesus Khrysis” has a spacey, throwback beat that draws on boom bap again, something this album really does a great job with and it’s one of my favorite beats of the album. What makes it even better is the lyricism is top notch, with Conway delivering excellent verses like “N***** try blockin’ my goals, I’ma make it Messi” and “That’s the zone I’m in, I write with a golden pen/But lately, I ain’t even been writin’, I just been goin’ in.” Not only is the later a great bar, but also a possible glimpse into Conway’s approach to writing because apparently him and Benny both go into the studio and record without any lyrics written down. They do it all from the top of their head, which if true, makes the songwriting even more impressive.

“Nothin’ Less” is another banger that closes the album out strong. It has a surprise feature from DJ Premier, who fits yet another amazing boom bap inspired song. And some people may find the reliance on boom bap influences on this album to be lazy, but I completely disagree when so much of hip hop nowadays is filled with generic, pop radio chasing beats and trying so hard to sound like a Drake song. So I find throwback beats like this be quite refreshing because it pays homage to the roots of the genre and the producers on this album also bring a modern flavor to it, avoiding sounding dated too. And of course it helps to have a great lyricist like Conway to rap over it, as a lot of rappers would get eaten up by the sound.

From King to a GOD is a fantastic proper debut album from Conway The Machine, as he brings his signature sound and high quality lyricism that longtime fans have come to appreciate him for while also bringing a level of accessibility in the music that will surely attract new fans too.

Grade: 9/10