Die-hard fans of Griselda know what to expect when they hit play on any album executive-produced by the imprint’s abbot, Westside Gunn: tight production curation, great features, excellent sequencing, and—as of late—scene-stealing performances by Stove God Cooks. However, one thing they generally haven’t been able to expect is the unexpected.
This isn’t to discredit the Flygod, nor comment on his growth or progression as an artist. As a curator, his projects have acted as springboards for talents like Estee Nack, Rome Streetz, and producers like Conductor Williams—not to mention visual artists like Isaac Pelayo. Yet, even while diversifying and playing with his overall sound on projects leading up to his latest LP, And Then You Pray For Me, he’s primarily remained within a particular sonic wheelhouse.
Pray For Paris—the precursor for this project—was his most inviting release to date, an easy entry point for new listeners. In the months leading up to And Then You Pray For Me, we saw Gunn traveling the world, living his best life (for a great recap, listen to Westside Pootie’s interlude at the end of “JD Wrist”). By all accounts, based on the snippets, we were in for something special.
His highly anticipated new release, which sits at a relatively hefty 21 tracks, did deliver many things we expected, like an AA Rashid intro, an interlude from his daughter berating our wealth, a poem from the always-dope Keisha Plum, hell, even a wrestling sample. As a great nod back to PFP, Cartier A. Williams appears again with a tap dancing interlude produced by Mr. Green (a producer we haven’t seen Gunn work with in years).
But he also delivered something else: trap beats. Like, a lot of them. Where 10’s “Flygod JR” saw him metaphorically dipping his toes in a new direction, this LP sees him take a swan dive and swim across the lake. With production handled by the likes of “Sicko Mode” producer Tay Keith and little-known producer Miguel da Plug (who handled a few too many tracks), among others, Gunn spends more than half the album on what may feel like a blindsiding side quest for longtime fans.
This, of course, isn’t something he didn’t foresee ruffling feathers; in a clip shared via Instagram, he predicted blow-back from core fans.
“You’re going to have the core underground fans that only listen to boom bap who hate because they’re going to say, ‘This nigga changed,'” he noted.
The resulting experimentation is a mixed bag that relies on the listener’s ability to go with the flow. Some of the risks, of course, pay off more than others. The Tay Keith/Griselda collaboration, “Kostas” (featuring Benny and Conway), is the best of the bunch and frankly an LP standout. Conway, in particular, who was still under anesthesia post-surgery for his fractured right tibia and dislocated kneecap, went crazy with his extended verse.
Other winners include “Mr Everything,” which sees him trade bars with Jeezy, and the Miguel da Plug-produced “Ultra GriZelda, featuring a standout guest verse from Denzel Curry.
Still, for those on the fence, songs like the sonically generic “LL BOOL GUNN,” which sees WSG adapting his bars and aesthetic to a more formulaic flow, may not change minds. If you compare this to his EST GEE collaboration “Steve and Jony,” produced by Tay Keith & Deats, he sounds more relaxed.
But for the real ones, the benevolent Flygod sticks to the tried and true for the other half of the LP’s tracks and delivers some incredible joints. “Mamas PrimeTime” kicks the album off with a bang, with huge guest verses from JID and Conway that don’t disappoint. Then there’s the soulful “Kitchen Lights,” produced by DJ Benoit, which is gorgeous—the audio equivalent of angel tears. Arguably one of the finest Stove God verses in his catalog, as he shines his coke-rap crown with lines like, “You talkin’ to a nigga that counted a half a million cash/With cocaine under his fingernails.”
Elsewhere, Gunn eats the jazzy “Flygod 2x,” a beat that fit him like a glove. Also, unsurprisingly, everything Conductor Williams touches is excellent. “The Revenge of Flips Leg” with Rome Streetz is probably the better of the producer’s two contributions.
“House of GLORY” is another shiny gem, with Gunn and Stovie sliding over possibly the best RZA beat we’ve heard in over a decade and some change.
It does feel like Gunn melded two juxtaposed projects together. One providing elite-level material polished with the well-defined Griselda aesthetic he’s spent his career carefully defining. The other traverses a sound that he has yet to master to the same degree.
Conversely, there is something admirable about leaning into it rather than going small. And as his “big ass bracelet” suggests, going big is in his DNA. In Gunn’s words, the album is for him; he’s evolving, exploring and making the music he feels like making in the moment, which isn’t a faux pas. If anything, keeping artists contained in boxes and chastising them for exploring outside of it is a “you problem” for the audience.
Still, there is another meta verse where this project could have been split into two distinct parts–going all in with what worked best production-wise and diversifying the credits to help make this dominant brand break as palatable as possible. Ultimately, amid very high highs, it heavy-handedly embraces a sound that his most devout fans often turn to Griselda to avoid. Whether the initial shell shock wears off for those listeners remains to be seen.