Steven Louis is still trying to score that internship at Griselda Records.
Who moves from Atlanta to East Buffalo to advance a rap career? This is not a riddle and there’s no punchline. It was the route taken by Conway The Machine, the man born Demond Price. As he tells it, Conway moved back to his native Buffalo in 2012, and was closing out a local party when someone pulled up and shot indiscriminately. Conway was hit in the shoulder, neck and back of the head. He survived, but nerve damage froze the entire right side of his face, a condition known as Bells Palsy. According to him, it was a struggle to even speak. But somehow, Conway continued rapping, got better at rapping, then started rapping circles around everyone alive. He built a devoted following, and inked a deal with Interscope/Shady Records, while his brother Westside Gunn (Alvan Lamar Worthy) founded Griselda Records and linked with Roc Nation.
Conway’s journey home proved to be fateful, a defining force. He lived a full life, incarcerated at 23 years old and staring down death shortly afterward, before dropping the 2015 breakout project The Devil’s Reject. On Look What I Became, the 2019 almost-album before his official debut studio LP, Conway The Machine is fully automated and actualized. He beat the odds, he’s an elite rapper, he’s aided and shielded his loved ones. He unspools his narrative with tasteful, opulent beats. We’re hanging on every word, every dusty jazz riff, every new moment in the miracle that is Conway’s career.
In Greek mythology, Cerberus, the “Hound of Hades,” is a three-headed dog that guards the gates of the Underworld. Snake for a tail, some very intimidating shit. Sorry if that reference was pretentious, but it’s the best description for Grisdela’s core of Gunn, Conway & Benny the Butcher. No one is rapping like these three motherfuckers. They’re lacerating writers, with the bars to go up against any living recording artist, but it’s all so listenable, even hypnotic. Daringer, the in-house producer for Griselda, sets a haunting mood somewhere between the pages of Virginia Woolf and The Maltese Falcon. Drums that seize at your nervous system, jazz flips that disorient, bars that leave the listener with aggressive thizz face.
Rapping grizzly bars from the side of his mouth, Conway is almost a parody of The New York Rapper. But all three Griselda juggernauts hail from East Buffalo, a poverty-stricken part of a historically-segregated American city. In the Buffalo-Niagara region, more than 60 percent of whites live in an “above-average opportunity area,” while only 10 percent of Black people live in such areas. Claims to the King of New York are usually laughed out of the room if the submissions come from Queens, let alone from Upstate. Yet when Conway says “we the hottest niggas out and we ain’t from the borough,” on the Griselda posse cut “Tito’s Back,” it’s so damn hard to argue. How the hell did they arrive here?
Previous Conway projects, like the Everybody is Food tryptic and the Steroids series, play out like highlight reels. Each release is a forceful dunk, and Conway’s in his element as he consistently reminds his audience that he’s one of the great writers of his lifetime. Look What I Became feels a little bit different. Sure, there are the wrestling interludes, a Griselda requisite, and there’s no shortage of thunderous multisyllabic put-backs. But on this project, Conway sounds more assured than ever.
He’s welcoming a challenge, and nothing’s rising to the occasion. He offers an ode to his mother, who had to raise both Conway & his sister by herself after their father was murdered. He effortlessly out-shines New York royalty Jim Jones and Dave East. He’s proving that he can construct a major-label album without sacrificing anything or skipping a single step of the Griselda recipe. Dense rhymes on time-shifting backdrops, intimacy without a whiff of corniness. And the man doesn’t even write. The past is prologue. Look what this guy became.
“They say I’m too passionate as a writer, but I don’t give a fuck that’s what happens when you fire,” Conway declares on the opening track, “No Women No Kids.” It’s so easy to root for Conway, and all of Griselda, because they fuse a Golden Era pen game with the confidence and bravado of a professional wrestler. On that posse cut, “Tito’s Back,” Conway and Benny go bar-for-bar, only for Westside Gunn to talk shit and menacingly laugh for the final two minutes. He doesn’t need to rap, he declares. Champagne is the new water, and he just ate Ruth’s Chris. Effortless.
Similarly, the strongest song of the project might be “Half Of It,” in which Conway spits with only half the story, half the brick, half the money. His homie just served 10 years, and that’s not even half his prison sentence. It’s as if Conway doesn’t operate with the whole picture in mind. Rather, he fights for yards, scraps moment-by-moment. If you were shot in the back of the head and your face was partially frozen, why would you conduct life in any other fashion? Conway The Machine is a highly-decorated, deeply-felt miracle. Griselda Records is a Black-owned business with backing from both Jay-Z and Eminem. All this from the city that gave us Nathan Peterman.
So, this is to say that you should be listening to Conway The Machine. The machine is functioning at its highest level. Look What I Became feels like a level-up and a prelude at the same time. Following along should prove to be rewarding, fascinating.