As much as (anyone in their right mind) still appreciates him as a rapper, Westside Gunn has been making more than good on his desire to be a curator. He’s turned Griselda into something of a miniature empire, even setting aside his work putting together Mach-Hommy’s masterstroke Pray for Haiti, the man has gone about enlisting the likes of Boldy James, Armani Caesar, and Rome Streetz as members of his ‘no misses’ team.
Regardless, this one is all the Rome Streetz show. Since the announcement of his signing late last year, curiosity among those in the know has been more than piqued. One of New York’s most underrated voices for all too long now, he viciously tears into every moment of Kiss the Ring like just the sort of opportunity it is.
Largely produced by Conductor Williams (we have a problem!), Kiss the Ring nonetheless sees the rest of Griselda’s essential personnel come through, from Camouflage Monk, DJ Green Lantern, and, of course, The Alchemist. The entire Griselda family is also on call, as well, with Conway the Machine, Benny the Butcher, and Gunn himself all turning in stellar verses, not to mention Boldy James’ dominant appearance.
Still, none of them can wrest away the show from its owner. Even given his past homeruns, one could scarcely have imagined just how fully he’d take hold of this moment, sinking his teeth into every rhyme on display. That said, it’s an unusual display: he’s laser-focused, but feels no need for an ambitious concept or anything of the sort – this is just Streetz spitting at the peak of his abilities in each and every moment, letting the sheer momentum of his skill carry the album through towards its end.
He’s all business one moment, harsh reality ruling his word, and talking shit the next: see the “Got rappers hating and they bitches naked in my messages,” barb in the damn opener, “Big Steppa”. He doesn’t let up the next moment, snarling, “Ayo, you fuck n****s will never, ever get close to this (Never) / Rose out the coke, smoke to gold quote vocalist,” on “Heart on Froze”. He keeps it up right until the closing title track, all but snickering as he delivers, “Fuck the game up like pullin’ the cord out the TV back / Like Thanos, everybody die when you see me snap.” There’s a balance between boasting, threatening, and sheer narrative, but there’s also a mournful vibe that’s never too far from reach, the scars of what Streetz had to go through (see “Cry Champagne”) to get to this point presiding ominously over his every move.
Beyond that? What more can I really say. This is an album that takes no prisoners, nor even considers doing so. You’re going to get knock out beat after knock out beat, guided by Streetz’ precise lyricism. The production manages variety even amidst the fireshow, from the boom bap of the aforementioned opener, the twinkling keys of “Serving”, to the thudding, eerily nearly psychedelic “1000 Ecstasy” to the DJ Premier-like “Cry Champagne”, to the distant clatter of “Non Factor”, right on down to The Alchemist’s appearance via the harsh story of crushed dreams on “Long Story Short”.
Nonetheless, something locks into place during Conductor Williams’ “Reversible”, the sinister loop providing Streetz with the perfect opportunity to play just to type: “Clapping sheep after I sent shots where the shepherd is / money ain’t evil, it’s the person / friends when you broke and get some paper he’s a serpent / try double crossing the doc will be wrapping your head up like a turban.”
Truly, though, just about any moment on Kiss the Ring is quotable, such as “I treat your studio session like the smoking section / light it up and violate you, cuz my flow’s a weapon,” as things nearly come to a close on the penultimate track “Fashion Rebel”. For just over 50 minutes, anyway, Rome Streetz takes us into his world, and it can’t help but feel like it’s his. Emerging might leave you gasping for air.