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The High-Art Designs of Westside Gunn

The Griselda member’s new LP, ‘Pray for Paris,’ is the culmination of many things, from Griselda’s brand of luxurious street rap, to Jay-Z’s and Eminem’s star-making machines, to the postmodern hip-hop that dominated the underground in the past decade

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

No one is sure where Salvator Mundi is; no one is sure whether the most recent buyer (a Saudi prince) was standing in for another, more powerful buyer (the Saudi crown prince); no one is sure whether the painting is in fact a Leonardo da Vinci. It was credited to one of his pupils until well after Marcberg came out. The painting’s title means “savior of the world” in Latin.

In 2005 the painting was sold from the estate of a dead Louisiana oil baron for less than 10 grand, by which point it had been dulled and damaged by restoration attempts. An NYU professor used acetone and infrared photographs to peel the repainted layers away and reveal the kind of imperfection—in this case, the position of the Christ’s right thumb—that would likely exist only in a Leonardo original. In 2012, it was authenticated as such and briefly displayed at the National Gallery. Then it was sold to a Swiss dealer, who flipped it to a Russian collector for $127.5 million. Finally, in November 2017, it went at Christie’s to the maybe stand-in Saudi for a hammer price of over $400 million, a record price for a work of art. It has not been seen since. Some people think it’s on a yacht.

Westside Gunn’s new album, Pray for Paris, opens with a 70-second interlude called “400 Million Plus Tax,” which is simply the audio from the Christie’s auction (“Francois is out—are you sure, Francois?”). This is fitting: There is no rapper working today whose music evokes more feelings about the arbitrary markers of high art, the dopamine rush of luxury for its own sake, the piecemeal restoration of an old style as a new, composite vision.

Pray for Paris is conspicuously constructed as, and will likely be, a breakout record for the 37-year-old Buffalo native, who in the past two and a half years has signed a distribution deal with Shady Records and a management contract with Roc Nation, and who now seems to have been fully osmosed into a world of yachts and brunches and dubious Russian financing. But it’s just as easy to read as the logical end of several things: the strain of underground rap that treats that Roc Marciano album as its big bang, the Jay-Z star-making machine, the notion that Eminem might be able to spin his famously rabid rap fandom into a career as an executive.

Gunn has spent the past half-decade building, with his brother and cousin, a tiny empire of sorts. Despite a falling-out with the enigmatic Newark rapper Mach-Hommy, the former associate who went on to make some of the most staggering rap records of the 2010s, Griselda Records has serviced its rapidly expanding cult audience with reliable, if workmanlike, street rap at a daunting pace. Conway the Machine (the brother) and Benny the Butcher (the cousin) are gruffer, more acrobatic rappers who write more lines that everyone in the car will ask to rewind. But it’s unsurprising that Gunn would be the one taking the biggest commercial leap. His nasally voice—which necessarily drew comparisons to Ghostface and Action Bronson, though he lacks the abstract brilliance of the former’s writing and the latter’s non-narcotic cooking skills—makes him the most distinctive member of the crew, and his 2016 album, Flygod, put Griselda on the radar of rap fans around the internet. (Even before Gunn et al. had plausible entree into the fine-art world, their physical LPs and frequent merch drops sold out in minutes, like retro Jordans or imitation Dalís.)

As for the comparison to Roc Marciano: At the beginning of the last decade, the veteran Long Island rapper began perfecting a style that stripped his music (the beats themselves but also the song structures and sound design) down to its core elements, refining a writing style that rendered ultraspecific symbols of luxury and the unspeakably grisly milieu of Giuliani-era New York in economical, impressionistic bursts stitched together with cartoonish threats and boasts. His watershed album, 2010’s Marcberg, and his many subsequent works influenced an entire scene of rappers—many on the East Coast but some sprawled out across the continent and dialed in from Europe via YouTube—who began rapping, with varying degrees of success, like iced-out Bond villains, eschewing clear autobiography, and, often, drums.

The style is often misread as revivalism; it is not exactly that. It’s more like 1990s New York rap refitted by postmodernists, unmoored from time or linearity. (Marci and his best contemporaries, like the Brownsville auteur Ka, are more than capable of working in classicist molds as well, but you know how things get with imitators.) Griselda records are not backward-looking in any literal sense, but they certainly scratch an itch for fans of ’90s rap who feel dispossessed by melody, Auto-Tune, and the South generally. Pray for Paris takes the retro feel one step further, in that its grinning, grand rollout and star-studded cadre of guests recalls a time when albums from radio-averse rappers still commanded this much investment from record labels.

As a point of technicality, Paris was not issued by Shady or Roc Nation—but this is only a technicality, as it includes cameos by Wale, Joey Bada$$, and Tyler, the Creator, who also produces one track. The world is rounded out by Benny and Conway, by Boldy James and Freddie Gibbs (each of whom, especially the latter, outshine the headliner), and by Roc Marciano himself. There is a bit of incongruity; there’s something about the Wale song, “French Toast,” in particular, that seems to yank Gunn out of the world he needs to be immersed in. One thing that made Flygod so compelling was that it sounded as if it came from a self-contained dimension, where his occasional lapses in writing—he’s prone to stock phrases—were less important than his total command of his surroundings. Paris is mostly of a piece in its tone and texture, but bits like Billie Essco’s too-smooth hook on “327” threaten to sand down the sharp edges it so desperately needs.

The last year has seen Gunn pop up at a number of high-profile events—a seeming contrast, the press clippings would tell you, with his music, which is studded with stories of drug dealing and running. But the images that come fully to life are not from Fashion Week or from nightmares of a distant, brutal past. They’re from somewhere in between, where luxury has trickled, Reagan-like, into otherwise ordinary circumstances. See “Versace,” where Gunn cooks on a stove with a “rose-gold pilot” and wears his full-length mink coat to a Buffalo Sabres game. Part of the appeal is that he isn’t 22; Gunn is most interesting as the richest man in the provinces, staring down middle age and deciding to take one last crack at the big leagues.

The album is occasionally buoyed by its beats: DJ Muggs, the Cypress Hill founder who has found a second wind as one of the underground’s most prolific veterans, builds something downright tranquil for “No Vacancy,” which Gunn goes on to populate with murder threats and “bulletproof Bentleys parked outside the Whitney.” “Shawn vs. Flair” uses the airy precision of late-period DJ Premier to explain that the paparazzo’s camera flash bounces off a red Aston Martin to make Gunn look like the devil. And it’s a thrill to hear the knotty rapping of the Boldy James collaboration “Claiborne Kick” over Alchemist’s warm, percussionless loop.

The album cover, which was “designed” by Virgil Abloh, sees Gunn’s chains clumsily Photoshopped onto David’s neck in a Caravaggio painting; David holds out Goliath’s severed head. It’s an arresting image, though not exactly representative of what’s happening here—a David being nudged by the Goliaths behind him, taking a defiant step into the frame.

Paul Thompson is a writer based in Los Angeles. His work has appeared in Rolling Stone, New York magazine, and GQ.