For most of us, 2020 hasn’t been the best year.
For Westside Gunn, it’s been bittersweet.
Just days before the release of “Pray for Paris,” the Buffalo rapper took to Instagram, telling fans he had spent the last few weeks recovering from coronavirus after going to the hospital feeling like he was “breathing [his] last breath.”
Thankfully that wasn’t the case, and Gunn is here today to bask in the success of his third studio album – and first ever project to chart on the Billboard 200.
The album was inspired by Westside Gunn’s first time leaving the U.S. for a trip to Paris Fashion Week back in January. Since the rapper was invited to Paris by close friend Virgil Abloh, the artistic director for Louis Vuitton, it’s only appropriate Abloh designed the album cover, too.
With help from an eclectic cast of characters, ranging from Tyler, the Creator to YouTuber and comedian Jay Versace, Gunn’s vision is brought to life in the form of a 41-minute-long masterpiece.
The project kicks off with a recording of the auction for Leonardo da Vinci’s “Salvator Mundi” painting, which was sold for a record amount of $450 million. From the beginning, it’s clear Gunn isn’t just giving us an album – he’s giving us a piece of high-quality art.
Although the 37-year-old has become synonymous with unconventional, he still finds ways to keep listeners on their toes. “No Vacancy” is a testament to this, as Gunn raps about cooking drugs, bulletproof cars, and throwing up from the smell of kilos of cocaine – over elegant piano keys. This ironic contrast serves as a metaphor for his new life – luxurious, but forever tainted by the past.
On “327” Gunn takes listeners back in time with nostalgic, jazz-infused production reminiscent of early ’90s New York hip-hop. The dreary, lo-fi beat – provided by Camoflauge Monk – is perfect for guests Joey Bada$$ and Tyler, the Creator to effortlessly skate over.
Each artist holds their own, but Tyler in particular shines, spitting bars like, “We eat good, long way from Macca’s burgers / Long way from that metro bus taxi service / Long way, loco gangs tried to taxidermy / We would run until our motherf*****g backs was burning up.”
Tyler is given not one but two chances to shine on the album, as he also handles production on “Party wit Pop Smoke” – Gunn’s dedication to the slain rapper. Tyler produced the beat the very same night he won a Grammy for best rap album, and the song found its way onto “Pray for Paris” because Fashion Week was the first and only time the two New York rappers ever met.
“Ain’t no eye for eye, you take an eye, we take your whole head,” Westside threatens in his nasally tone. Frequent collaborator and spoken-word artist Keisha Plum closes out the track with a graphic verse about murder.
On “Shawn vs. Flair,” the only winner is Gunn – who reflects back on his jail time and how far he’s come since his subsequent release. “Left out that fed cell, did the impossible, incomparable / Hundred drumsticks and silencers came optional.” Equipped with production and classic sounding record scratches from DJ Premier, Gunn finds the perfect balance between grit and boom bap on the “Pray for Paris” highlight.
The track was a last-minute addition to the project, recorded while Gunn was still battling coronavirus. “I was done recording, and I had to go right on the breathing machine,” he told Peter Rosenberg, via Zoom interview. Gunn’s off-the-wall cadence is as unique as it is mesmerizing, and he sounds ready to jump out the speakers and grab you.
But “Euro Step” finds him rapping with a certain charisma and bounce not shown elsewhere on the album. The song clocks in at just under two minutes long, and Gunn’s brief, to the point verse says all he needs to say. The minimal production accentuates his aggressive flow and tough talk.
“$500 Ounces” is the complete opposite, as Gunn, Freddie Gibbs, and Roc Marciano rhyme over a looped soul sample courtesy of Alchemist. Prominent horns give the track a triumphant feeling, and it’s easy to forget the artists are rapping about selling cocaine.
Although the track is sonically beautiful, it doesn’t lack honesty. “I got skeletons in my closet, right next to Balenciaga,” Gibbs ruthlessly raps, while Gunn gets candid: “We used to chip in on the big, bag it up, that’s my rent / You take a shift, I take a shift, the feds come, raise my kids.” The track ends with an abundance of Gunn’s signature “boom, boom, boom, boom, boom, boom, boom!” ad-libs.
Art and fashion take precedence over rap for Westside Gunn, so it shouldn’t be surprising “Pray for Paris” feels more like a canvas than an album – painting a vivid picture through miraculously gritty tales and stellar production.
The project only reaffirms Gunn’s remarkable ear for selecting beats and ability to curate songs better than DJ Khaled. The production chosen for each guest suits them so perfectly it’s almost scary, and though the features may sometimes look unusual on paper, they sound necessary in context.
Gunn’s appearances on the project are kept short and sweet. He doesn’t rap more than one verse on each song, and I’m often left wanting more from our protagonist. However, short run times for most songs kept things interesting, and I never found myself bored of the album.
Packed with soulful samples, vintage record scratches, and passionate raps, “Pray for Paris” is the perfect recipe for success.
Westside Gunn is fundamentally sound and undeniably hungry on his ode to Paris.