[Shady; 2020]

“The underground just spunned around and did a 360 / Now these kids diss me and act like some big sissies.” It’s not without some self-serving amusement that I cite Eminem circa 2000 in relation to Westside Gunn‘s debut for Shady Records, but it’s a quote not without relevance. Rap heads – true rap heads, at least as they fancy themselves – are all too happy to hype you up, gobbling up each release in a genre notorious for demanding near-constant output from its leaders, then just as readily turn on you, just as soon as your collected goodwill allows you to reach the very level fans helped you get to in the verse place: one befitting your talent.

Such seems to be the narrative being placed around Westside Gunn and his new record Who Made The Sunshine, and, arguably, the narrative aimed at Griselda in general of late. The trio, and the label they spearhead, has grown from a tiny self-released bunch hailing from the unsung Buffalo region of New York into a force so essential that everyone from Jay-Z to the aforementioned Eminem has fought for association.

Of course, it’s only been in the past year or two, the same timeframe in which Griselda has seen their fortunes multiply, that claims of oversaturation began to crop up. Let’s remember that during their peak year No Limit Records released 23 albums – now if that was oversaturation is open for debate, but suffice to say, striking while the iron is hot is Hip Hop 101.

If anything, Griselda has been admirably impervious to the type of change typically demanded for an ascent to their current stature; while the vast majority of artists attempt to sound like Drake or DaBaby or somewhere in between, no one within the Griselda cast strays far from their defiant, grimy New York aesthetic. There’s a reason why the Chef Raekwon himself introduced their WWCD album, and why Slick Rick – a rap legend who makes even Andre 3000 look generous with his content – makes not one, but two appearances on Who Made The Sunshine.

It goes beyond Westside Gunn and his companions staying true to their sound though. It’s a palpable excitement by rap’s ageing icons at the sheer unlikelihood of it all, that this trio have released a clutch of albums on which traditional DJ Premier beats don’t sound a bit out of place, and that they dominate current conversations so much that even Aubrey Graham has sought out collaborations (and as we all know, Drizzy hoping to drain the lifeforce out of your sound is the true sign of having made something worthwhile).

This level of pre-existing importance, before Gunn was even able to make his major label debut, is fundamental in understanding his position on this album. Due must be paid to the subtle grace of Gunn’s hand at play here, which is just what makes Who Made The Sunshine special: there is a carefully crafted duality at work in each and every moment.

On the one hand, the album is new ground for its creator simply by definition. The charts have yet to speak, but ideally, building on the strength of Pray for Paris and his new position with Shady Records will bring his music to more ears than ever before. Hence, Sunshine is arranged for the potential listener who hasn’t heard any of the rapper’s Hitler Wears Hermes instalments, and maybe has never heard of Griselda at all. Still, the album bears the weight of following an already-established Marvel-verse of rap lore, while expertly showing off its cast (chiefly of Conway and Benny, but also new Griselda signees Boldy James and Armani Caesar) to a viewer coming in with no prior knowledge whatsoever (“So, why is the green guy big?”).

It’s no easy feat, and yet, Sunshine never feels like it’s holding your hand, nor that it’s overstuffed in order to show off all the attractions. To the contrary, at 11 tracks, it’s among Gunn’s most concise statements to date.

While most of the album stays truer than ever to Griselda’s formula – being nearly entirely produced by in-house smiths Beat Butcha and Daringer – it’s the grand finale, “98 Sabers”, that brings Gunn’s sound to an inevitable mecca: a fantastic Just Blaze beat. It was only a matter of time until Griselda linked up with the man behind numerous Jay-Z hits (not to mention a few of Eminem’s), and “98 Sabers” is so essential that it all but demands headphone listening. 

On the other hand entirely, every moment here plays with a wink to the informed fan, with Gunn more than ever relaxing into the role of curator. His nasally voice makes his inherent instrument arguably the strongest of his familial trio, but so far as rap as craft, while Conway the Machine and especially Benny the Butcher focus on laying on bar after killer bar, it’s long been clear that Gunn fancies himself the empire-builder and the leader, every bit as important as his role as an MC – if not moreso.

He’s far from going the Travis Scott route of putting enough great pieces in place to carry an album for him, but he’s very much in a kingly state here. He’s completely comfortable with ceding the spotlight, whether it’s with singing so audacious that it works in spite of itself for effortless Boldy James and peak-form Jadakiss verses on “All Praises”, or when he all but pulls the beat out in honor of every word Slick Rick utters on “Ocean Prime”. Indeed, across 11 tracks, there are essentially only eight proper Westside Gunn verses. For all his maximalist tendencies, as an artist Gunn knows just when to pull back, just how little can amount to a lot, and just how to move to keep us wanting more.

Therein lies Who Made The Sunshine’s already underrated duality: it’s both grand introduction and complacent victory lap; both urgent and laid back, all at once, constantly. It’s not every day, and indeed, perhaps even never before, that a major label debut has played such contrasting roles. Only time will tell how it will fit into the growing Griselda tapestry, and if Gunn will stick to his self-imposed retirement plan at the end of this year, but for now it stands as a unique, confidently unconcerned statement of poise.

77%