In January, the rapper Westside Gunn found himself in the front row at a show at Paris Fashion week, sitting near stars like J Balvin. Much to the rapper’s surprise, his own gruff voice started blasting through the speakers — “Perfect Plex the brick, broke it down, it got me rich” — as a tap dancer writhed and twisted in front of the crowd. It’s safe to assume that few of those in attendance at Virgil Abloh’s Off-White show had experience breaking down a brick of illegal substances, let alone performing a wrestling move on one, but for Gunn, that didn’t matter. “Just imagine — you’ve been into fashion your whole life, but you’ve never been to fashion week in Paris,” the rapper recalls. “You finally go, it’s one of your favorite brands, and then your song comes on.”
This was the latest sign of validation for this 37-year-old rapper from Buffalo, New York, who has gradually built a loyal following by being wildly prolific — he’s released more than a dozen projects since 2018 — and single-mindedly consistent. He raps in a pinched, nasally voice, mostly about “fashion, art, [or] wrestling;” he favors sumptuous, unhurried beats built around soul samples; he disrupts those gleaming surfaces with jarring ad-libs that evoke a blasting machine gun.
All these qualities are on display in his new video, released on Tuesday, which moves from the minimal, tightly-wound “Euro Step” — “clothes from Fifth Ave, I was broke and got rich fast” — to the stately, string-filled “No Vacancy:” “The Margiela peacoat, the Regal/Four story house I got off Ebro… Slam you on your neck like Bruno Sammartino.”
Gunn’s insular approach often evokes New York rap from an earlier era. For Mike “Heron” Herard, an A&R at Shady Records, Gunn’s work evokes a very specific image: The back cover of Eric B. and Rakim’s 1987 album Paid in Full, which features the duo next to a selection of infamous local characters, including the original 50 Cent, a gangster whose name was later borrowed by an aspiring rapper named Curtis Jackson. “There are very few people today that can speak to the juxtaposition of street culture and high fashion the way [Gunn] does,” Herard says. Shady Records signed a deal with Gunn in 2017.
Gunn’s momentous trip to fashion week inspired his latest album, Pray for Paris, “I went to Paris not even thinking I was making a project,” the rapper says. “A project was the last thing on my mind. I was going for fashion!” But he booked a studio for the final three days of his trip and knocked out six songs in quick succession. He originally planned to release an EP as soon as he returned to the States. “But once I landed, I was still hungry,” Gunn says. “I’m like, I need to add to this.”
Pray for Paris is populated with rappers who share Gunn’s taste for throwback beats: Freddie Gibbs, Roc Marciano, and Boldy James, along with his brother and label-mate Conway the Machine and his cousin Benny the Butcher. Their presence is to be expected, torch carriers finding strength in numbers.
The final addition to Pray for Paris also fits squarely in this tradition: “Shawn vs. Flair” is the work of the legendary DJ Premier, whose sinewy, thunking beats define Nineties boom-bap purism. Gunn thought the album was already done, but DJ Premier got wind of the release and demanded to be involved. “He’s like, ‘I gotta get on the album,'” Gunn recalls.
When DJ Premier sent along his beat, Gunn was battling the coronavirus. Initially, the rapper hid his diagnosis from fans for weeks, admitting on social media that he didn’t want people feeling “sorry” for him. “I was really out of breath,” Gunn explains. That meant he only had the lung power for two or three passes at Premier’s beat. “I got it on the second take,” Gunn says. “That’s why it’s so short. People are like, ‘you got a Preemo beat, but the song’s so short!’ It was so short ’cause I couldn’t breathe! When I was done with it, I had to go right back on to the breathing machine.”
While DJ Premier and Gunn are kindred spirits, some of Gunn’s collaborators on Pray for Paris are more surprising. Tyler, the Creator’s recent albums have little in common with Gunn’s, but Tyler raps on “327,” a loping highlight built around a lazy, shimmering vibraphone sample and muted, smacking drums. “I hit [Tyler] right after the Grammys to congratulate him [for winning Best Rap Album],” Gunn explains. “He’s like, ‘bro, it’s crazy, I’m in the studio making you a beat.'” Tyler came over to play Gunn some instrumentals, but he heard “327” and got sidetracked. “He went crazy, started freestyling, doing voice notes, sitting in the corner for 15 minutes by himself,” Gunn remembers.
Wale, a fixture of mainstream, major-label hip-hop, also appears on the rattling “French Toast,” which includes a rare thing for the melody-averse Gunn: a hummable hook reinforced by pretty singing from Joyce Wright. “That’s as radio as I’m gonna get,” the rapper says.
The presence of more mainstream acts like Tyler, fresh off a Grammy win, and Wale, whose “On Chill” single still gets more than 1,500 spins a week on rap radio, is another sign that Gunn is gaining wider acceptance. “He speaks to an audience that a lot of people sleep on,” Herard says. “And he’s galvanizing that audience.” Pray for Paris achieved Gunn’s best first-week sales total to date, earning more than eight million audio streams opening week and landing him at Number Four on the Rolling Stone Breakthrough 25 Chart.
Gunn welcomes the extra attention, but he doesn’t plan on getting comfortable. “My album hasn’t even been out two weeks, and I’m going to make another,” he says proudly. “I don’t stop.”