Genre: Hip Hop
Favorite Tracks: “Lessie,” “Ocean Prime,” “98 Sabres”
There is something fascinating and deeply admirable about a person knowing exactly who they are; someone who exudes confidence in the security that knowledge provides. Westside Gunn, the original Buffalo kid and kingpin of the red hot Griselda Records crew, is indisputably one of those special people. His major label debut WHO MADE THE SUNSHINE demonstrates a clear understanding of his strengths and weaknesses, and more broadly the exact legacy Gunn wants to leave. The record is a culmination of years of painstakingly laid groundwork, and an exclamation point on a beautifully executed domination of rap in 2020 for the Flygod and his brothers in arms.
The best way to understand Westside Gunn as an artist is with a curious comparison. He is the Travis Scott of his corner of the rap world: both cultivated unique sonic identities alongside their broader cultural impact, which augment the music with public forays into high fashion and art. Crucially, neither is a particularly strong rapper. Scott and Westside understand this, and instead leverage their skills as curators to produce albums that are unmistakably theirs, while choosing to take center stage for fleeting moments rather than long stretches. Travis hides like a chameleon in his best tracks, weaving himself into his signature psychedelic trap production while his featured artists provide the standout verses. Gunn does something similar, setting the scene for his handpicked collaborators and rarely overstaying his welcome. He understands his limits and refuses to make WHO MADE THE SUNSHINE any more about him than it needs to be. When a lyrical titan like Black Thought pops up on”Ishkabibbles,” Gunn holds his own, but on a track like “All Praises,” he’s happy to handle hook duty and cede the floor to Boldy James and Jadakiss. His choice in features is consistently strong; April’s excellent PRAY FOR PARIS brought unexpected verses from the likes of Tyler, the Creator and Wale, while “Sunshine” is blessed with two standout verses from one of the smoothest to ever spit, Slick Rick. The Ruler graces two languid, pitch-perfect beats on “Good Night” and “Ocean Prime,” the latter tainted slightly by a miscast Busta Rhymes rapping like a comedian doing an embellished impression of Busta Rhymes.
While most of WHO MADE THE SUNSHINE is in the Griselda wheelhouse, the album is not without fault. Like many rappers who built their artistic identity on hard, snarling bars, Gunn struggles when he attempts to show a softer side. “Liz Loves Luger” is a bad misfire like the clunky “French Toast” off PRAY FOR PARIS or the painful “Drive By Love” from FLYGOD IS AN AWESOME GOD II before it. Wasting a sultry Alchemist beat and some smooth Armani Caesar vocals, Gunn serves up an abomination of a verse, full of jarring and artless imagery. I cannot recommend anyone listen to it; I subjected myself to a couple listens to bring you the warning I hope you heed. Though the production is generally strong, the strict formula Daringer and Beat Butcha adhere to keeps them in familiar territory. Tracks like “Sunshine Intro” and “The Butcher and the Blade” recycle the twinkling keys of PRAY FOR PARIS track “George Bondo,” and in general the beats break no new ground. “Frank Murphy,” the second lengthy posse cut of the past month after Big Sean’s “Friday Night Cypher” is similarly undone by a strange beat that verges on unlistenable after the two-minute mark. It also lets the magnificent Stove God Cooks deliver the best verse first, leaving nearly seven minutes of runtime to tire of. Generally, SUNSHINE doesn’t deviate from the convention like PRAY FOR PARIS, trading evolution and experimentation for incremental refinement and familiar grooves.
These aren’t fatal flaws, though, especially given what the album represents for Gunn and Griselda. While I might’ve wished for slightly more evolution from Westside Gunn the rapper, I would be lying if I said he hasn’t clearly communicated this approach. His interviews and appearances on the BET Shady Cypher or Apple Music’s Fire in the Booth established that Gunn relishes his role as a table setter for the truly talented rappers in his corner. Benny, Conway, Boldy, and Armani are more traditionally skilled, and driven to be great rappers, while Gunn is content to be the one to climb the mountain first and drop the ladder down behind him. In this sense, WHO MADE THE SUNSHINE is Westside Gunn staying true to his word, backing up years of “If I make it, the whole team is going to make it” talk with a showcase album that’s a pure expression of his vision for Griselda.