Album Review: Benny the Butcher – Burden of Proof

[Griselda/Empire; 2020]

It’s 2020 and Benny the Butcher’s sophomore album Burden of Proof is the seventh release from the enigmatic Griselda Records. The constant onslaught from this rap collective is mind-numbing; even if one release isn’t as strong as the one before it or after it, there’s no denying that Benny, Westside Gunn, Conway the Machine, and now recent signee Boldy James have dominated the 2020 landscape. The belief that Griselda is oversaturating the market with their work is silly too; the label’s been around since 2012, and its core trio has been dropping albums and mixtapes multiple times a year since. So when Benny states “Yo, last year was about brandin’ / this one about expandin’,” he’s just being honest.

But for Benny the Butcher, Burden of Proof only marks his second full length since his debut Tana Talk 3 back in 2018. Within the first ten seconds of the title track on Burden of Proof though, any possibility that Benny is going to continue the same path as before are dashed. He may declare “I’m back” at the start, but this is a new Benny – same as the old Benny, but looser and shrouded in thrilling production that breaks the norm for his label mates. Using Hit-Boy instead of in-house collaborators Beat Butcha and Daringer (or The Alchemist) puts him firmly on the outskirts of Griselda’s lineup this year, and it’s felt. Hit-Boy produces loud and driving rhythms for his subjects, none of which are jarring or outshine the rapper, but further push his bars to the front line masterfully.

The emphasis on more soulful beats on Burden of Proof makes for a drastic departure from the God-level approach of Conway, and the strenuous and drawn out feeling of Gunn’s. Instead, Benny’s latest outing is his tightest, leaving very little fat to be trimmed – outside of the occasional vignettes that mar every rap release since the 90s.

Those aside, Burden is the best release Benny’s done yet. “Burden of Proof” sounds like 90s rap brought back, you can almost visualize Benny riding down the street and thumping this new record as loud as hell as he rolls up to a stop light. This is electrifying rap that puts poseurs like Run the Jewels to shame.

Benny’s not alone either, he’s brought a militia of rap’s finest, who never outshine him but definitely add additional dynamite to the sound of Burden. Rick Ross lends his contemplative tone to “Where Would I Go”, rapping “When you face a few years / it’s to fight it / I shoot the prosecutor right back / Johnny Unitas / Perry Mason / Gary Paton.” Freddie Gibbs delivers the chorus on “One Way Flight”, and the lead single “Timeless” sees a wealth of talent as Lil Wayne and Big Sean elevate the chorus, harmonizing with Benny congruently. His Griselda brethren aren’t far either, Conway and Gunn drop in on “War Paint”. But the major feature here comes from DOM KENNEDY on highlight “Over the Limit”. “Copped the same day / And got the windows tinted / Dropped two hundred / Ao they really know the difference,” KENNEDY spits with an imperfect flow that is perfect to combat Benny’s.

The most exciting thing about Burden of Proof, though, isn’t the guests. Benny holds his own on every track, never allowing the veterans of rap to outshine him. Gibbs, Wayne, Ross, Sean – none of them make the impression that Benny does when he takes on the world in “Sly Green” or declares his stature on “Famous” – “Cause I don’t feel famous / Three Rollies, two cribs, six figures / And I still don’t feel famous.” This apprehension to accept his status goes hand-in-hand with the little attention Griselda were paid prior to 2020, but the die-hard attitude of their roster has put them on the map this year.

Burden of Proof delivers on its promise of being a sharp contrast to the rest of Griselda’s 2020 deliveries. It’s a star-making turn for Hit-Boy, who manages to bring Benny to lavish worlds full of friends and fiends, but none of which are too much. It’s a busy record for sure, but it makes for an exhilarating listen front to back. At less than 40 minutes, it’s also one of the most compact rap albums of the year, running more like a singer-songwriter level of conciseness and less of an over-zealous rapper. With talent like this, it’s no wonder Griselda is prepped for world domination, and the hits are expected to keep coming.