Since the group was established in 2012, Buffalo-based Griselda Records has established itself as one of the most respected rap collectives in the underground. Their profile rose dramatically after signing a distribution deal with Eminem’s Shady Records, and it seems the group escaped the effort to dilute their sound that afflicted previous Shady signees and have maintained their independence. The central pillars of the group are founder Westside Gunn, his brother Conway The Machine and their cousin Benny the Butcher. The group have put out a steady stream of high-quality work in recent years, and their profile has only risen as their projects have improved. The most recent release from the group is Conway’s long-awaited solo debut and, as it stands, From King to a GOD is everything fans could have hoped for and has been received as the collective’s best project to date.
Conway primed the ground for his debut with two collaborative albums, No One Mourns the Wicked and Lulu, earlier in 2020 with producers Big Ghost Ltd. and The Alchemist. Both were excellent albums, but their short run time left them with room for future efforts to grow. From King to a GOD is certainly more substantive than anything I’ve heard from them before, and Conway has always been the trio’s standout member in my eyes. Benny the Butcher runs a very close second though, and he does deliver a standout guest verse here on the cut “Spurs 3”, which features all three, and is a light-hearted and funny moment of swagger. I’ve long struggled with Westside Gunn’s uniquely testing vocal delivery though, and his presence has always marred previous Griselda projects for me. As funny and eccentric as his ad-libs are, they’re still a welcome presence throughout this project.
The production style associated with Griselda and their in-house producer Daringer is fairly minimal, but not so much that it becomes uninteresting. The sonic palates are typically old school and credibly grimy, with distant, low-fi sampled piano melodies, heavy droning basslines and rusty drums. “Dough & Damani” is the most typically Griselda track on the album in this regard, alongside the collective cut “Spurs 3”, with its prominent and sinister tinkling music box. Otherwise From King to a GOD is a little more varied than past projects, opening up with the shredding electric guitar chords on “From King” and closing out with the glistening electronics of “Forever Dropping Tears”.
There are also some moments when Conway the Machine stretches his vocal muscles a little, duetting some melodic flows with Freddie Gibbs who, on “Seen Everything But Jesus”, returns the favour of Conway’s guest verse on his fantastic Alfredo project. Neither rapper is much of a singer, Conway especially, but the emotion in their deliveries still comes across as they sing of their past mistakes and those they’ve lost along the way. Of course, there’s a lot of flexing and coke talk across the album, most of it superbly done, but this is more emotionally aware, and the tragic perspective is still in evidence at times.
I remember hearing “Front Lines” when it first dropped as a single and I definitely underrated it at the time. The track stages Conway’s comment on the recent police violence. There were a lot of tracks dropping around that time in response to the killing of George Floyd, so I did kind of lose it in the shuffle. His comments on the track are presented in an incredibly simple and matter of fact way, putting it in the most direct and honest manner possible. The result is a devastatingly sobering listen, pouring out clear-headed outrage over a dementedly down-tuned piano courtesy of Beat Butcha:
Another moment of emotional resonance is in the closing track, “Forever Dropping Tears”, where on the second verse Conway The Machine delivers a powerful monologue to his friend DJ Shay. The deaths of those around them have sadly always cast long shadows across Griselda’s work. The death of family member Chine Gun is such a central part of Griselda lore that their collective debut was named What Would Chine Do? in his honour.
Not all the album is so substantive though, with the majority of the record devoted to showcasing Conway’s skill and credibility, which both he and all the features do very effectively, and with the kind of cool and authority many rappers chase for decades. He more than holds his own against not only Gibbs, who’s one of the best MCs around but an on-point Method Man on the ominous “Lemon”.
The album also showcases a few recent Griselda signees, El Camino and Armani Caesar, on “Forever Dropping Tears” and the trap-inflected “Anza” respectively. Although she sounds uncannily like Nicki Minaj, with a similar delivery and command of flow, Caesar’s lyrics are better here than Nicki’s ever were. The only parts that honestly did leave me cold were, of course, Westside’s feature, and the DJ Shay interview interludes, which felt like a well-intentioned but mishandled mixture of self-promotion and a memorial to a beloved friend.
Despite these tiny reservations, Conway the Machine’s From King to a GOD emerges as Griselda’s best release to date. The tight but varied tracklisting leaves little room for error, and Conway rises to the occasion with an authoritative and alternately brash and sobering take on the gangster lifestyle, something that proves why he’s considered such a standout voice in the underground.