Westside Gunn, the high-pitched voice and gold-toothed face of Buffalo’s Griselda Records, did not originally plan to be a rapper. His goal was to play the background mogul role occupied by the Puffs, Suges, and Dame Dashes of the world and to guide his talented brother, Conway, into stardom. However, a hail of bullets resulting in a near-death experience for Conway changed those plans and altered the course of both artists’ careers.
Forced unexpectedly into the forefront, Gunn’s flashy presence, inimitable vocal stylings, and liberally sprinkled art and fashion references have helped make Griselda a household name and a Shady Records signee. But given how much talent Westside Gunn has himself, what does it say about Conway the Machine that his brother was so sure that he was the star of the crew?
First and foremost, Conway is an MC. It’s a title that was once met with reverence, but now it’s either wielded by fuddy-duddy writers as a cudgel against so-called mumble rappers or viewed interchangeably with “old” by fans that were toddlers during hip-hop’s golden era. What it really means is that he raps with a level of clarity that belies the Bell’s palsy that froze half of his face into a permanent sneer. It means that he is a deft and clever lyricist who combines visceral imagery (“he used his Polo t-shirt to wipe his nose drip/ Said he ain’t aiming at legs he leaving domes hit”) and gallows humor, with traditional punchlines and malleable cadences in a way that sounds classic but not outdated.
His latest mixtape, More Steroids, puts these strengths on display with the help of original production from Griselda’s in-house producer, Daringer, The Alchemist, and Statik Selektah and a few choice instrumentals from the past and present. This is a follow-up to Reject on Steroids, which, like this tape, was hosted by DJ Green Lantern. However, this go around Green tones down some of his signature transitions and tricks that make his tapes unique and shortens the tracklist. That, including the choice of instrumentals, makes More Steroids feel more like an EP or album than a mixtape.
Statik Selektah, perhaps known more now for helping shepherd Joey Bada$$’s career or the blistering freestyles that take place on his Shade 45 radio show, is a criminally underrated producer. On “3 Bodies”, Conway slices his tinkling piano flourishes and rubbery bass line into mincemeat for one of the mixtape’s standout performances. “187th Chamber”, which uses the “4th Chamber” instrumental from GZA’s classic Liquid Swords, feels more like a mission statement than a song. Conway carves his own space in the cluttered field of hip-hop artists by stating everything that he isn’t and by displaying what he is: one of the dopest rappers in the world today.
More Steroids peaks when Conway teams up with longtime collaborator Daringer. If the murderer’s row of tracks near the end of the tape — “St. Regis”, “Voices”, and “Nash” — are indicative of what we can expect when The Machine releases his official Shady debut, G.O.A.T., then the album will be well worth the wait. Griselda’s other resident wordsmith, Benny the Butcher, also turns in a notable performance over a Daringer beat on “Spurs 2”.
Unfortunately, while it’s clear that Conway is a talented rapper, it sometimes feels like he’s still trying too hard to prove it to the listener. For example, the freestyles over Playboi Carti’s “Magnolia” instrumental and Dave East’s “Paranoia”, while dope, both feel a bit out of place and tacked on at the end. They serve little purpose outside of Conway showing the world “I can do this too,” and probably would have made more sense as Soundcloud loosies.
It also would have been good to hear more introspection and passion on More Steroids. His verse of 2016 performance on Westside Gunn’s Hitler Loves Hermes 4 standout “The Cow” is the best example of this in Conway’s catalog and remains the high point of his young career. Going forward can we expect his subject matter to drill down to give more granular, personal, details about life in the streets of Buffalo, or will we hear more of the same? Even if we’ve already seen the outer limits of Conway’s talent, he will always be worth a listen, but he’s proven that he is capable of much more. Hopefully, that will be on display on his long-awaited debut album. In the meantime, More Steroids is enough to hold us over.
Essential Tracks: “3 Bodies”, “St. Regis”, and “Voices”