Not even Coronavirus could stop Westside Gunn from dropping more music, further solidifying himself as one of the most prolific emerging artists in the rap scene today. “I didn’t want anybody feeling sorry for me I had to thug it out for weeks I didn’t get to see my kids I went to the hospital feeling like I was breathing my last breath,” he told his followers on Instagram. Since 2016 with his debut album, FLYGOD, Gunn has just consistently been dropping hit after hit, and whether by chance or through his own iron will to fight, WSG would come off a ventilator, make a full recovery, and drop the best rap album of the year.
The album’s cover is a modified David with the Head of Goliath by Carvaggio, with David donning some of the FLYGOD’s own bling, triumphantly holding the head of Goliath, a coincidental and fitting parallel with Gunn’s own triumph over the virus. The intro is audio from the auction of a painting by DaVinci, which went for the titular $400 million (plus tax). With Pray for Paris, Gunn combines the elevated with the gritty and down to earth. “Ayyo, I’m from a back block on the east side, peace and war/ Out on Leroy with the MAC on, peace Allah (Brr)” is the affirmation of self he uses to open the track “George Bondo.” The intersection of violence and peace, crack rocks and DaVinci paintings are just a couple examples of the dichotomy Gunn spins on. The title “Pray for Paris” is an allusion not just to the trending hashtag following gun attacks and bombings in France in 2015, but to the aesthetic and essence of the city itself, being widely considered the premiere artistic and fashion capital of the west.
Pray for Paris features some of the biggest name collaborators on tracks from any of Westside’s last work. Joey Bada$$ and Tyler, the Creator hop on “327,” in which Tyler offers his own affirmation of self as a member of the LGBTQ community. “When I walk in, n*ggas ring the, ring the bells (bells)/ Roses at my feet, n*ggas kneel, bitches yell/ Glitter on my neck match the glitter on my fingernails.” Tyler has been an outspoken member of the LGBTQ community for some time now, and he has discussed his sexuality openly on social media and in his writing. This is not the extent of his contribution to Westside’s album, however; he also produced at least one other beat on the album with the song “Party Wit Pop Smoke.” What impresses me the most about this collaboration is just how different these three rappers are stylistically, yet “327” is one of the tightest on the whole thing. Tyler and Joey Bada$$ bother deliver killer verses, but Gunn’s imagery in his own is concrete and vivid, “I threw coke in the pot, watched it bloom residue and consume/ He started wavin’, had a lighter and dope spoon/ A n*gga try to kill you for your recipe/ My shooter nasal drip flowing heavily, duckin’ my third felony.” Gunn is a wordsmith, and he is constantly evoking sounds or other senses in order to place you in the scene he is describing.
“Euro Step” is the most fun track on the album. Gunn’s flow is changed up on this one and almost reminiscent of Jay-Z’s early 2000’s style. In the next track, “Allah Sent Me,” he has changed up again and is going in on an entirely different kind of beat. Fellow Griselda members Conway the Machine and Benny the Butcher, Gunn’s brother and cousin, respectively, bring a tangible energy out of Gunn that can only be replicated by the childhood friends someone’s run with their whole life, as proven by their chant at the end of “George Bondo.”
In John D’Emilio’s “Capitalism and Gay Identity,” the author discusses how capitalism has both offered a means for the homosexual community to gain social acceptance while at the same time created several barriers to success for them. These barriers include the repeated failure of our society at large to protect the rights and liberties of gay men and women while also propagating homophobic notions that being gay is detrimental to the nation’s morals or somehow a threat to the nuclear family. Further expounding upon the relationship between capitalism and gay identity, D’Emilio writes, “Capital expands in several ways… The expansion of capital and the spread of wage labor have effected a profound transformation in the structure and functions of the nuclear family, the ideology of family life, and the meaning of heterosexual relations. It is these changes in the family that are most directly linked to the appearance of a collective gay life.” Another part of this stigma is the challenge put forward against gay men’s masculinities. Citing too the oppression lesbians and gays face as “the force that propelled the movement into existence” (D’Emilio), Tyler in his own way continues to challenge and show a new way of what it means to be masculine, specifically in the spaces he exists as a black man, and as a celebrity.
Then again, so much of Pray for Paris is inherently concerned with, if not capitalism, capital itself. Gunn describes the lengths people go to obtain power and influence, and there’s not a lot people aren’t willing to do. It’s everything from manufacturing and selling crack-cocaine, killings, and this dark underbelly of the freemarket is what props up and enables the legal market and the finest things it has to offer, like the Davinci painting which sold for $400 million. This has always been the reality, and with this album, Westside shows the two as fundamentally inseparable.
As mentioned earlier, Pray for Paris is concerned with capital and the means about which it’s acquired. It’s a nod to those with it but also to those in want of it. Lyrically, it speaks to those with the cognizance to realize the system’s hypocrisies and limitations and exploit it for the gain of themselves and theirs. It is, as Lil Wayne once wrote, “Hustler Musik.”
Westside drops the mic with “LE Djoliba,” named after a restaurant in Paris. A piano melancholically plays behind a choir; Westside proclaims himself “the cover of vogue,” and, flexing his love for fashion “front-row, Virgil Abloh show,” Gunn concludes the song with audio of, get this, a tap dance. For the entire album, start to finish, I cannot think of a more appropriate conclusion then to go out with the pitter patter of a fading artform. The whole thing is an exploration of the eccentric and elegant. It’s trap, it’s gangster, and, I would argue, progressive in a social commentary sense; an effective critique of the limitations of a system which hoards so much for so few. Take some words to the wise from Westside Gunn.