Westside Gunn’s style has long been regarded by hip-hop fans as a niche gimmick for old heads who yearn for the East Coast rap sound from back in the 90s. Throughout his mixtapes Hitler Wears Hermes 1-7, Gunn has consistently fallen short of expanding his sound to anything greater than a nasally flow that will keep you interested as long as you are not listening to the lyrics. The Long Island rapper and his cohort struggled to hold the attention of anyone other than his ride or die fans. His latest LP, Pray for Paris, marks a departure from the previously disappointing discography to something that has mainstream potential without deviating from the style and persona that brought him this far.
The album is as much a visual masterpiece as an auditory one, with instrumentals and audio samples that paint vivid scenes in the mind of the listener. Westside opens the album with a clip of Leonardo Davinci’s painting, Salvatore Mundi, selling for “400 Million Plus Tax” (450.3 million) at Christie’s Auction House. The clip serves to introduce a connection Gunn solidifies throughout the album: his music, persona, and entourage should be associated with more than just street antics and drug running. While the album is full of those references, they are coupled with the constant reaffirmation of his connection to high fashion and relevance within the industry. And these connections are not exaggerated; Virgil Abloh, creator of Off White and creative director for men’s fashion at Louis Vuitton worked with Gunn to curate one of his recent fashion shows. Prior to Pray for Paris, Westside had never been to Europe. Once he arrived, he spent the next couple weeks cooking up his first charting album, and subsequently the soundtrack for the Louis Vuitton show at Paris Fashion Week. Wearing “unreleased Off White to the ankles,” Westside vastly expanded his creative horizons with Pray for Paris and made a name for himself in “places (you or I) can’t go.”
The attempt to bundle high art, a traditionally white space, and hip-hop music, a traditionally black one, is nothing new. Many rappers attempt to combine these two mediums, but Westside Gunn executes the melding of these spaces better than any of his competitors. He does so by reinforcing the themes of the albums via instrumentals that set context for the lyrics. Take a track like “No Vacancy,” for example, it introduces the album with piano runs belonging in a European castle, red carpets, golden chandeliers and all. Gunn’s brilliance stems from the pairing of these playful, royal notes with lines like “have you ever thrown up from smelling too many kilos,” referring to trafficking cocaine and its signature gasoline smell. The combination of becoming physically ill from packing and distributing drugs with the visual of high European society provided by the instrumental forges a connection between the two seemingly contradicting environments. Gunn utilizes this connection to call into question our presupposed narrative about who belongs in what spaces and the means by which people obtain status. He discusses “bulletproof Bentleys parked outside the Whitney,” which in itself highlights the social image of a black man, specifically a black hip-hop artist in America.
Westside paints the picture of being able to afford $300,000 cars and stay at expensive hotels, yet still needs the cars to be bulletproofed as his wealth does not insulate him from violence, but actually exposes him to more. The lyric indicates despite the financial freedom music and drug dealing has provided him, he still remains at least on some level, unsafe. The ad-libs on the track work to crystalize this message of danger (and its commonplace) as Gunn rings out gunshot sounds throughout the song in a casual, devil may care tone. The tension Westside draws between his experience as a black man attempting to climb the social ladder in America and the experience of actually arriving at the top is discussed proximately in Robin James’ “Resilience & Melancholy.” James discusses how Rihanna expresses an attitude of melancholy in her music, and how her album Unapologetic is not the reliance machine fans and critics expect” as the “damage” within the album “isn’t spectacularly overcome” (James 154). Similarly, the damage of Westside’s past is not erased, as he still requires protection and is ready to “blow your brains out in broad daylight.” Rather than feeding the false narrative of being free from his past, Gunn embraces it unapologetically and reminds listeners of past, present, and future threats he faces.
My favorite track on the album, “327,” takes a sonic spin to something more whimsical with high chimes and kicky bass. “327” refers to a collaboration between Westside and fashion brand Casablanca for a new sneaker that debuted at Paris Fashion Week. Westside Gunn challenges the narrative that he is only a feature artist by having a star-studded cast that he seems to keep up with effortlessly. The likes of Tyler the Creator and Joey Badass are not something you expect to see on a Westside album, but their presence works to diversify his listener base. The line from Tyler in particular, “the glitter on my neck match the glitter on my fingernails” is a line you would not expect to hear in a rap song, let alone a Westside Gunn song. The lyric and others like it merge masculinity and the accumulation of wealth with the traditionally queer image of fingernail paint on a man. While this is a small expression of the phenomenon, Westside is successful in this album because he allows for diverse sounds and explores new attitudes. Tyler’s feature on the song using male-gendered pronouns while referring to a love interest is creating space for not just queerness, but also black, masculine queerness in the hip-hop world.
Historically, rappers mainstream or otherwise have been vocally homophobic, except when it comes to the sexualization of queer women. Gunn’s inclusion of Tyler’s verse allowed for the expression of his sexuality without making his gayness the spotlight of the verse, but rather a “normal” expression of romantic interest between two people regardless of gender. Sonically, “327” reflects this new acceptance for identities (which parallels Gunn’s forging of his own identity in high art) within hip-hop through a chime filled instrumental reminiscent of background noise in a daycare center.
Another place Westside shines is on the track “French Toast”, featuring Wale. Westside does something great with his awkward — frankly bad — singing. It’s almost unapologetic how poor it is technically, but it doesn’t matter because it doesn’t have to be good. The fact that he is just “out here in Paris, crushing on you” paints this picture of a hopeless lover just spilling his guts out over his love. He even references his lack of talent at the end of the song with a sample from the 2005 WWE Raw championship with Shawn Michael saying, “Alright, I’ll admit, I’ll admit, I’m no singer. But what I am is a showstopper… The headliner, the main event, the icon.” The raw, unrefined singing mimics the phenomenon of a celebrity showing up to the Met Gala in sweatpants and being praised for their dashing looks and daring fashion risk- it doesn’t matter what he does (or wears) because he is who he is. On the track, “Allah Sent Me”, he continues the narrative of him being an “icon.” The whole song is about murder and selling drugs in tandem with references to Allah or God. The most interesting part of this track is actually the sample at the end, where the “million-dollar man” is commissioning a belt. This man is a caricature of a rich man demanding things beyond already obscene requests. When disappointed by the number of diamonds on the piece he berates the belt maker; “I don’t care if that is 500 stones, if that’s 500 stones I want 800 stones… That’s not enough diamonds for the million-dollar man, and the million-dollar man always gets what he wants. HAHAHAHA.” I believe this story is an allegory to Westside’s path in the rap and drug game. The title of the track, “Allah Sent Me” associated with this clip makes you think of Gunn as a prophet who has been sent by God. His demands for “more diamonds” represents his lust for more than the already outstanding accomplishments under his belt. The Buffalo rapper has certainly displayed this lust with Pray for Paris, as his first charting album and undeniable entrance into the mainstream of both rap and fashion.
This piece is part of the on-going series “The Social and Political Commentary of Music Reviews,” which is part of an Alternative Journalism course at Tulane University taught by Dr. Christine Capetola.