Hailing from Buffalo, New York, Westside Gunn released his third studio album, Pray for Paris, on Griselda Records, an offshoot of Shady Records. A frequent collaborator with his brother Conway the Machine, who has connections with experimental hip hop producer The Alchemist and released an EP with him in March, Gunn has been steadily building credibility among New York hip hop revivalists and underground rap fans. On Pray for Paris, Gunn reels in many notable collaborators that are sure to pique the interest of rap enthusiasts including Benny the Butcher, Gunn’s cousin, Freddie Gibbs, Roc Marciano, Tyler, the Creator, Joey Bada$$ and several others.
Despite some big names involved, the album does not come off as an attempt to capture mainstream attention at all. The aesthetic is very New York, with classic piano loops and dusty drum machines cascading over most of the songs. Even as the production is mixed well and provides the rapper with a passable foundation to rhyme over, very few of the beats feel urgent or striking in any way.
The instrumentals that bring the most conviction are easily “Allah Sent Me” and “George Bondo,” as they both give off a grim vibe that meshes well with the grittiness of the tracks’ messages. Beats like “Versace” and “Party wit Pop Smoke” toward the end of Pray for Paris are replete with gorgeous soul samples, but don’t have the drum patterns that would give these beats a lively groove. Nearly every beat here is paced similarly throughout the entire song, devoid of any switch-ups or progressions that demand the song to make a significant change. The instrumentals are stylistically consistent, but they don’t display the variation that the wide array of production talent at Gunn’s disposal would suggest. Most are hardly spellbinding, or even satisfying, given the talent on the album.
It’s apparent from hearing the album a few times that beyond a nostalgic vibe, the beats aren’t fueling the album’s fire. Although Gunn is clearly a lyrical rapper, his pen game is generally unfocused on this project. Pray for Paris has a handful of decent verses, especially from the guests. Tyler, the Creator and Joey Bada$$ team up with Gunn on “327” to deliver brazen verses against a wistful 90s backdrop. However, none of the artists astound and there are a few questionable lines (especially the dancefloor one).
Gunn approaches his content by spinning personal tales of his lifestyle, specifically drug dealing and being a drug kingpin, which is especially prevalent on the track “$500 Ounces” with Gibbs and Marciano. The song alone illustrates the storytelling divide on this album between Gunn and his guests, with Gibbs in particular giving a skillful, charismatic performance and clever bars that describe his lifestyle in an interesting way. With the single verse, Gibbs has crafted a vivid conglomeration of his current and past life that rivals the entirety of what Gunn put together throughout the rest of the project.
Pray for Paris lacks super focused lyricism and imaginative production that many fans have come to expect from artists signed to Griselda Records. Yet, Gunn’s greatest flaw throughout the album is his vocal performance. Nearly every track features the same squeaky cadence and dreary delivery that makes most of them feel out of place. The instrumental palette the album offers, requires a certain amount of hunger to make it work, and even though Westside Gunn’s vocals are off-kilter, they have no urgency or hunger to them.
His vocals lay flat, begging to either be ignored or found irritating. If Gunn isn’t killing the laid-back vibes of a track with his vocals, he’s contributing bad things to a track with little going for it in the first place, like the hilariously awkward “French Toast,” where Gunn’s performance on the hook is just painfully unbearable. This is the low point for choruses on the album, but the rest of the hooks aren’t exactly high points for Pray for Paris either.
The album, sadly, fails to come together as a cohesive portrait of Gunn as an artist. The instrumentals are occasionally refreshing, but the rigid redolence of New York pastiche is exhausted by the end of the project. Gunn himself brings some gritty lyrics but doesn’t have the unique flare or vigorous swagger that a rapper in this style needs, to make this sound necessary in 2020. The features, with a few exceptions, are interesting only when juxtaposed with Gunn, sucked into the same overly austere atmosphere that makes this album a 41-minute slog. To top it off, there are several tracks that are sorely underdeveloped throughout Pray for Paris that just don’t add to the track list as a whole. Gunn’s potential to make a project more enjoyable down the road lies within his ability to do something more adventurous.