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Douglas Martin is the man of 1004 holds.
Chris Benoit, on metrics based purely on in-ring talent, was one of the most gifted wrestlers of all-time. I know people who would put him in at #1 if it weren’t for the fiery asterisk next to his name. When it comes down to it, no amount of creative genius in the world could ever overshadow the acts he committed during the last hours of his life.
A big theme of Westside Gunn’s music is the wickedness lurking in the hearts of desperate men when they’re stuck in a vicious cycle. Another is how such a bankruptcy is ignored for those dwelling the same circular path with empty finances. The evil men do and whatnot. Gunn is no stranger to the theme, using the sometimes indescribable moral bankruptcy as an aesthetic flourish on his Hitler Wears Hermes series.
“You see, something’s either happened or it’s about to happen with unbelievable magnitude.” The words of “Big Homie Arn,” spoken by Four Horsemen enforcer, Ric Flair’s right-hand man, and likely the most lawful-neutral wrestling character in history, Arn Anderson, provide a foreboding subtext for not only Supreme Blientele, but the remainder of Chris Benoit’s life. (Which obviously serves as a thematic fulcrum for the album.)
Arn was speaking in character on a wrestling storyline painfully brought to life, touching on Benoit’s status as the “other man” in the marriage between Kevin and Nancy Sullivan. The latter would eventually become Nancy Benoit and years later would be strangled to death by the man she shared a name with, a man who would eventually extinguish the lives of everyone under the same roof with the misfortune of carrying the Benoit surname, including Chris himself and their seven-year-old son Daniel.
Disastrous consequences often happen in Gunn’s world—long jail sentences, lives ended in a hailstorm of bullets—usually as a piece of the whole or a grim aside. While Gunn rattles off one of the best technically dizzying verses of his career on “Brossface Brippler,” he offers a brief snippet of those consequences: “My nigga went to trial and got cooked.”
Supreme Blientele frequently references signposts in Benoit’s career: “Dean Malenko” is named after a close friend for much of his career (his matches with Eddy Guerrero in ECW are among my absolute favorites from any era), and “SaBu” is named after an opponent who got his neck broken on a botched move in a match with Benoit. A common trait in a lot of good art is to know when to fill in the details and when to leave them out. Some of these allusions to Benoit’s wrestling career are documented in great detail (like the clip from ECW Hardcore TV capturing the incident in the Benoit vs. Sabu match—played up for story in subsequent months because breaking someone’s neck, in spite of its real-life implications, is a pitch-perfect wrestling angle), some only in song titles.
The ambling and rambling “Wrestlemania 20,” featuring the peculiarly soulful voice of Anderson .Paak, doesn’t thematically match the intense, epic main event of the show it’s titled after, where buckets of Triple H and Shawn Michaels’ blood are doused all over WWE’s ring canvas and the hallowed floors of Madison Square Garden. The song’s twangy guitar-soul sounds like getting head on a hammock. If we’re making parallels between the match and Gunn’s music, Flygod’s dreary “Omar’s Coming” leading into the affirming “Mr. T” carries a segue matching the narrative of the triple-threat match where Benoit—after eighteen years toiling away at his craft—finally captured the World Heavyweight Championship.
Supreme Blientele, like Flygod before it, is greatly benefited by its structure, filled with fascinating musical detours (from the chopped up Saturday night soul singing of “Mean Gene” right into guitars heavy on the wah-wah pedal on “Stefflon Don”). There are full posse cuts—like the hard-knocking “Brossface Brippler,” featuring a haunting vocal sample, the masterful, image-heavy writing of Benny the Butcher (his verse here and on “Gods Don’t Bleed” and “Brutus” are part and parcel to why Butcher on Steroids was the most engrossing Griselda release of last year) and the cocaine cowboy character work of Busta Rhymes—and there are heat rocks barely a minute long, like “SaBu,” featuring a super bonkers sample which adds to the idea of Gunn being officially passed “the torch” by Raekwon, and to be fair, a lot of it is very reminiscent of the dark, minimal but almost psychedelic sample mastery of peak-era Wu-Tang.
“WESTSIDE” is one of a handful of instances I’ve heard a rap song come close to the Tunnel Banger aesthetic since at least 2001. If you’re not on what Gunn is trying to do, that’s all going to sound like blasphemy, or maybe like this is a lesser version. It depends on your vantage point, I suppose.
As anticipated, Supreme Blientele contains quite a few callbacks to Flygod; its allusions to the worlds of art and fashion (the Kerry James Marshall painting that recently shook the art world, Kanye West speaking about how scratches on a Birkin bag increases its value), ceding its outro once again to AA Rashid, who has very insightful takes on renaissance culture and the four laws of governing (number three: you pray for them niggas). Keisha Plum tosses out her rich poetry about your girl’s pussy getting moist while hearing her words at the tail end of “RVD.” Like most artists, only Westside Gunn knows exactly how his world should be rendered, and the world building on his full-length projects so far have been resonant and striking.
The thing I think about most when analyzing about the subtext of Supreme Blientele is how relationships to our heroes are usually very complicated. The thing going through my mind after that is revealing the feeling of being stoned, driving around the suburbs listening to “Elizabeth” on repeat. The Alchemist-produced banger features an instantly memorable saxophone sample and Gunn rapping about friends coming home from jail and acquaintances who only skate Supreme.
“I know some niggas going ‘round claiming fake blood,” Gunn says before a pause—almost as if he’s so disappointed by the reality that a part of him doesn’t want to believe it. Then, adding to the feeling of being insulted by this proposition, he finishes his first verse: “I know some niggas going ‘round claiming fake cuz!”
Supreme Blientele has two alternate titles: Chris Benoit and God is the Greatest. The cover for Chris Benoit, drawn by Isaac Pelayo, features a sullen Canadian Crippler with a third eye, much in the vein of the artist’s Visions series. The image that ends up making the cover (shot by Elias Zamudio) is even better, a grainy black-and-white shot of Westside Gunn pulling a Fendi stocking over his face with one hand, holding an assault rifle with the other. Scores of tattoos cover every inch of the skin, gold front glimmer menacingly beneath a section of the all-over printed logo.
It’s an evocative image; blending grit and high-fashion into something aesthetically fascinating, much like Gunn’s music itself. He serves hand-to-hand draped in John Elliott in “Amherst Station,” with a nostalgia-inducing Daringer beat providing a soulful backdrop for Gunn’s stream-of-consciousness imagery of discarded paraphernalia, ephemera, and felonious acts. “The Steiners,” an equally nostalgic soul track drafted by the incomparable Pete Rock (maybe one of his best beats in years), has boom-bap coursing throughout its undercurrent while Elzhi mentions being “well-rounded like David Ruffin’s fro” and Gunn offers glimpses of a furiously paced dealing story and a hustler’s insight: “I sold bricks for real/ I took a paycut when I signed my deal.”
Naturally, there are parallels between the art of Chris Benoit and that of Westside Gunn. Benoit, for all his talents, arguably didn’t receive the accolades his gifts warranted until late in his career, a mere three years before he killed himself, his wife, and his son. Gunn, for all his talent, is in that stage where his accolades haven’t quite caught up with his talent.
Of course, this is hardly any fault of his own, as is usually the case of influence. If you read his recent XXL interview, you are very well-aware of Gunn’s feelings on artistic theft. On the flip, the deft combination of cringeworthy strikes and gnashing submission holds—a style currently popular in all levels of professional wrestling, from middle school gyms all the way up to the WWE Championship—are at least partly due to the influence of Benoit, even though his name has been pretty rightly erased from the annals of official history.
As much as I think binaries are bullshit, people who know of Westside Gunn either felt Flygod was the Ironman for Virgil Abloh worshippers weaned on Marcberg or it was too much style and not enough substance. But Gunn is an aesthete par excellence, for which the style is the substance. As they say, the proof is in the pudding, and a whole lot of rappers over the past two years have nicked tricks from the bloody tears and golden crown of thorns and benefited greatly from it.
Supreme Blientele could easily stand in for a passionate discourse on whether it’s useful to separate art from its artist; the coverage over the past several months of XXXTentacion’s life and death illuminated that conversation explicitly. Using Chris Benoit as the subtext for a hardcore rap odyssey replete with repeat convicts and teenage shooters, regardless of where you stand on the line between artistry and ethical behavior, is a powerful statement on both morality and morality.