All Praise Be to the Flygod: Westside Gunn is Back Again

Douglas Martin breaks down Flygod, the great new record from Buffalo native Westside Gunn.
By    April 21, 2016


Douglas Martin rocks Aviator Nation like he’s on the design team.

“Niggas ain’t got no art in they shit. […] A bunch of niggas in a motherfuckin’ music video, running around, jumping around, pointing their hands like they got hammers and shit at the screen. Yelling at me and shit. I’m like, ‘What the fuck you want me to do? You want my money? What is this, a stickup? Or this is, what, your art.’ ‘Cause it ain’t art, nigga. You look crazy as fuck.”

As long as there has been a thing called art, there have been pretenders of all stripes. People who claim the mantle of artistry but trace all their drawings. So-called “creative” types who are mere manufacturers, and shoddy ones at that. A shocking number of people who practice art, music especially, care more about popularity than singularity. You see it in fast food Hollywood productions, you hear it in “Panda.” Every form of art has been infiltrated by people who want to make a quick buck but still want to be praised for participating in the arts.

Though its artistic intent is presented bountifully throughout the album, the mission statement of Flygod is clearly stated in the outro, as articulated by Brother AA Rashid. A lot of rappers are frauds who don’t see the art in what they do. A lot rappers lift personae wholesale from gangster movies and neighborhood folk tales. For the past few years, Westside Gunn has been refining his art, hitting a sharp upward tick when his Hitler Wears Hermes mixtape series reached its second volume. He, along with his older brother Conway, have been tearing up the sectors of rap fandom still interested in painstakingly crafted New York razor-under-the-tongue-rap, gaining an impressive profile in the past year.

They compare themselves to the tag team of Scott Hall and Kevin Nash, but they’re more like All Japan-era Steiner Brothers than the famed Outsiders: They’re traditional but technically impressive, a classic pairing of super-sized charisma and dazzling skill; and they’re certainly not opposed to dropping a motherfucker on his head. Keeping in line with the metaphor, Conway is Rick (secretly more skilled at the craft than his brother) and Gunn is Scott (the one in the group with the star power).

As great as their individual and tandem efforts have been, Flygod may very well be the peak of either of their full-length efforts thus far. Over a top-shelf collection of beats, ever-present is the idea that Gunn sees the art in what he does, replete with references to Miami’s annual Art Basel and Buffalo’s Albright Knox. Moreover, there is a specificity, attention to detail, and a willingness to blend craft and personality: three essential building blocks in the creation of impactful art.

Gunn’s Art Basel reference is accompanied by a nod to infamous Shower Posse co-founder Vivian Blake. “Vivian at the Art Basel,” featuring a solid opening verse from Your Old Droog, is probably too subtle to become the world-beating rapper-drug dealer parallel a la Rick Ross comparing himself to Big Meech, but what it lacks in potential mainstream notoriety, it more than makes up for in elegance. Elsewhere in Gunn’s world, cocaine is dyed black, child shooters are itching to get more notches on their firearms, and young women stir MDMA into their moscato like Kool-Aid that needs just a touch more sugar.

There have been a great many rappers who have sprinkled fashion references in their rhymes, but they’re usually just brand name drops. This has happened from years, from Polo Ralph Lauren and Tommy Hilfiger to Balmain and True Religion. And let’s not forget the greatest and most creative example of the crossover between fashion and rap, when Ghostface Killah revealed to the world the art of dyeing Wallabees before the beat for “Glaciers of Ice” kicked in.

Not only does Gunn have a much wider reference base which calls attention to his intellectual and aesthetic fixation on high-fashion—Kenzo, Off-White, Phillip Lim, Kitsune, and, as much little credit as I’d like to give to Drake* as far as anything goes these days, those OVO Jordan 10s are pretty okay-looking—but he offers commentary on the fashion world with as much authority as any of his other songwriting themes.

When he raps, “Gucci been dead since Tom Ford left,” it’s probably the greatest brand disavowal since Jay-Z dismissively quipped, “We don’t drive X5s, we give ‘em to baby-mamas.” He describes what he’s wearing the way Frank Bruni would describe the texture of fettuccine. No one in rap, probably ever, rhymes about fashion with as much depth as Gunn. He’s good enough at it to have his own column in GQ while guys like A$AP Rocky just pose for the spreads.

“It ain’t but only a few of you motherfuckers really did what you really say you do.”

Flygod is peppered with references to (and a phone call interlude with) Sly Green, who explains why he was given the four consecutive life sentences, cited by Gunn more than once in the Hitler Wears Hermes series. The news clips on the album reference him as one of the most infamous—possibly the most infamous—drug dealer in the history of Buffalo, New York. Green asserts he was standing up for himself, which Gunn croons about in “55 and a Half”: “My nigga didn’t take a plea then he went out bad.”

Gunn only fears poverty and RICO trials. He’s not scared of you Twitter gangsters out here making threats. He’s not scared of the concept of mortality; his brother was shot in the head only four years ago. He knows death comes for everybody one way or another, and it never waits around for an invitation. Though he currently resides in Atlanta, Gunn is from Buffalo, recently dubbed one of the most dangerous cities in America.

There is a bleak side to Flygod which encapsulates the grisly side of the drug trade. It’s not all Givenchy totes, Ace of Spades bottles, and Tesla coupes. There’s the aforementioned struggles for appeal from Sly Green—brain matter floating in sharp winds—the friend who committed suicide after being indicted.

Throughout his career, he’s extensively detailed serving time in federal penitentiaries, highlighting images of him falling asleep in law libraries. He has friends on the run from police since last summer. There is a personal touch to his accounts of participating in certain activities, details too numerous and descriptive to be counterfeit. On Flygod, Gunn values the artistic value of complexity; he’s not interested in rote glorification of the criminal world. His tribulations and triumphs are displayed in equal measure.

“You a theatrical performer, stop frontin’.”

In the world of pro wrestling, there’s this cliche that the best wrestling characters are just themselves “turned up to 11.” Not only does Gunn recognize this statement and applies it to his work—let’s not forget his professional wrestling fandom, hitting kilos with the force of piledrivers and suplexes—but he surrounds himself with other strong rappers who have foisted their own outsized personalities to the world.

Action Bronson shines on “Dudley Boys” even without his outrageous sense of humor. Skyzoo turns in a workmanlike verse on “50 Inch Zenith,” featuring one of the best beats Statik Selektah has ever produced. Meyhem Lauren, who always sounds most at home over hard-as-fuck drums, makes the most appropriate comparison to himself ever on “Over Gold”: “Greg ‘the Hammer’ Valentine, that’s the white me.” Conway delivers one of his best verses on opener “Dunks,” and that’s saying a lot. (“I had amigo rapping before Offset” and “I might put fox on like ‘96 Jigga” are two of the best rap-nerd-centric lines of the year, not just on the album.) And Roc Marciano makes the most of his eight bars like the elite MC he is, quipping, “OG Kush, I’ll get your OG booked, Rolie took / Homie look, niggas quote me like the Holy Book.”

Throughout the course of his short-but-fruitful career, Westside Gunn has been building up to Flygod, the apotheosis of what he’s done up to this point. He still has unlimited potential and could very well surpass this effort with his next one. And this is coming off of his stellar collaborative releases with Conway, Hitler Wears Hermes, and his EP with the Purist just released a couple months ago, all infinitely replayable in their own right. It really does seem like Flygod is the beginning of a new stage, the next level in a career a lot of rap artists would already trade their weight in gold Cuban links for.

In summation: “Niggas is done. Westside Gunn.”

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