Credit due, Griselda bear the unique distinction of being probably the sole rap clique from which each flagship member has spent time as my assured favorite. It was Westside Gunn, with his entertaining mix of flair, pomposity, and theatrical grandeur, that first brought me into the fold. Before long, Benny took the title by way of his hardboiled storytelling and undeniably vicious scene-stealing turns on posse cuts. Finally, I settled on Conway the Machine’s grim, direct style, coming to appreciate his unique cadence and searing honesty. To my mind, God Don’t Make Mistakes still stands as the high-water mark of three’s discographies.
Still, Benny is as far as it gets from a slouch (there’s good reason Gunn gave him the very last verse to close Who Made the Sunshine), so expectations and curiosity has abounded for his official Def Jam debut.
On the way towards the release of Everybody Can’t Go, our favorite Butcher has often found himself at odds with his fanbase, who have generally recoiled at his cozying up with Hit-Boy. Benny has been defiant, insisting a change in direction has proven fruitful for his career and that he knows what’s best for himself (and also, in an exhausting move, spoken up for Donald Trump).
All this has made the build up to Everybody Can’t Go an interesting event: it’s essentially come to represent the limited options available to a rap head’s favorite attempting to go mainstream. Benny doesn’t have the vision of a Kendrick, the pop savvy of a Drake, or the devil may care creativity of a Vince Staples. Nor, to be fair, does he really have any interest in any of these perspectives. Unfortunately though, he also does not possess the charisma of a 50 Cent, a more precise comparison to draw a line to, as Curtis Jackson’s success seems more the sort of movement he’s chasing, both in terms of mainstream visibility and as a New York icon.
So, without any of these particular tools in his kit, Benny is still stubbornly clawing his way towards the ceiling with those he does have, sanding them down in the process.
All this isn’t to entirely come down on the man. On the flipside, fan expectations are so often incredibly limiting to hip hop artists, trapping even the likes of Marshall Mathers (once a key Griselda supporter, mind you) to the artistic purgatory of exhaustive rhyme schemes and content best left behind decades ago.
So, I don’t blame Benny in the least for trying on new shoes. I’m also not on board with the blanket Hit-Boy hate. If anything, I’m impressed by his determination. When his workmanlike beats started to wear thin some time around 2013, I imagined his moment was just about over. Here he is, still relevant in 2024, having produced some great music for Nas that I hope more stubborn rap fans eventually embrace.
Alas, Hit simply doesn’t make for a great pair with Benny, providing production that lacks the simple spark of his best Magic or King’s Disease moments. Unsurprisingly, The Alchemist is the production MVP here, but Benny splitting duties evenly between these two somewhat incongruous beatsmiths signals an odd lack of confidence in his new direction. Given his outspoken takedown of his “boom bap” audience, treating his big swing for a wider audience as a “one for me, one for them” affair is a confusing, and not altogether successful, strategy.
Opener “Jermanie’s Graduation” starts thing off on a good foot, with the Butcher reflecting on his come up, growing confidence and reputation (“when I invite ’em to the lab, they be scared to play what they got”), his annoyance at rumors regarding dissension in his crew, and more, sliding effortlessly across a reliable Alchemist piano loop.
What follows is a stumble. “BRON” immediately caused a fan uproar when released as a single to the point that Benny replied to one such detractor personally. I declined to listen until hearing the album: I wasn’t interested in grumpy takes from fans resistant to change, and wanted to hear everything in context. Alas, not only does Hit-Boy’s beat sound like something The Game might have had the wisdom to pass over circa Jesus Piece, but Benny doesn’t sound particularly inspired when throwing out boasts. Self-aggrandizing comes to Westside Gunn like it’s a second (or even first) nature, it simply doesn’t suit Benny.
Here’s the thing: there’s nothing wrong with changing lanes to enter this arena. Kendrick, for one, showed how a dominant rapper can make masterpieces out of radio-ready bangers with most of the songs on DAMN.. Whatever grief folks gave LL Cool J at the time for B.A.D., he didn’t miss a step striding towards a wider audience either. The list goes on. Benny, however, doesn’t seem to have a vision for exactly what he wants to say in the limelight.
He doesn’t often seem particularly interested, or convincing, over the sort of sounds Hit provides. Benny more than excels when he’s storytelling and by simply devouring verses. To his credit, he once again proves why he’s esteemed at the former via the blunt insights of “TMVTL”, but the “run that verse back” Benny is all but absent on Everybody Can’t Go. Once more, there’s nothing necessarily wrong with that, but he doesn’t seem sure how to replace that energy with conviction.
Even The Alchemist gets dragged down by the pursuit of safe material, delivering a dull, lifeless beat for “Big Dog” – all is not lost though: Lil Wayne makes a great guest turn. On the flipside, while Snoop Dogg makes for a logical, and perhaps even essential, inclusion given that it’s he who led to Def Jam signing the Griselda champion, it’s a shame that he doesn’t get a proper verse. Also, given that Dogg shouts out From tha Streets 2 tha Suites – an album he dropped nearly three years ago – one wonders how long this song has been smoldering in the ash pile.
Thankfully, “One Foot In” picks the energy back up, with Benny and Stove God Cook$ pairing up for a raucous, entertaining romp. The majority of the rest of the features (save a strong turn by Jadakiss), from Armani Caesar to Babyface Ray, are more passable than essential, with even Gunn and Conway seeming to simply clock in, rather than reaching for a classic Griselda cut.
This isn’t to say Benny doesn’t have good moments here. When he raps,“I coulda made my brother rich / that n***a died before I got home,” on “Pillow Talk & Slander” it’s a bracing moment. However, it’s not truly until album closer “Big Tymers” that he seems to fully come alive. Drawing inspiration from Birdman and Mannie Fresh’s classic run, he finally properly tears into the endless opinions regarding his ascension (“Hate to see me win, hate to see me catch a level / Jealousy’s the devil, I thought on my way to revel”). It would have been nice to hear more of this Benny here.
Whatever the longtime fans may say, aside from Benny offering another Donald Trump shout out on the album’s title track (deep sigh), there’s nothing truly embarrassing on Everybody Can’t Go. Still, I can’t help but wonder if the title, intended as an astute observation on why he’s changing, and how most MCs can’t hope to attain the glory he’s seeking, will grow to more represent his own limitations. To be fair, Jay-Z spent plenty of time pandering after Reasonable Doubt before he fully capitalized on his increased visibility, but I don’t really imagine anything here is going to boost Benny the Butcher to that extent. There was no harm in trying, and, hey, the boom bap fans will always welcome him back.