Honestly, before this year, I had only heard a few Griselda cuts (I blame Westside Gunn’s adlibs, which still grate on me a little). Though I’ve been aware of the trio’s trapper-turned-rapper, kings of Buffalo status, it was only after hearing their scorching Fire in the Booth earlier this year that I began to explore their discography. Considering they’ve released eight albums between them so far this year, I figured the group was probably putting in extra work to capitalise on the attention the freestyle had garnered. But taking a closer a look at their discography, brothers Conway the Machine and Westside Gunn released 3 albums in 2019 and 6(!) albums in 2018 respectively, and cousin Benny the Butcher also put out 3 albums in 2018 – a consistently crazy work rate clearly runs in their blood. As Benny conveys throughout this new album, Burden of Proof, their street lifestyle has clearly instilled a level of rigour, discipline, and ambition that can be transferred to hip hop.
The opening line of the album on the titular intro track conveys just that: “Last year was about branding, this one about expanding”. The track is immediately head-bobbing: an electric guitar refrain begins the instrumental before being swept away by regal horns and drums. Benny comes with steady, in-your-face bars before slipping into a poly-syllabic flow: “…prison phases…decision making…frige-rator…killers waitin…reno-vatin”. The dynamic between Hit-Boy’s production and Benny’s flow on this track and others throughout the album is reminiscent of the chemistry Kanye and Pusha T had on 2018’s DAYTONA – a gold standard when it comes to modern gangster rap albums.
Across the track list, Hit Boy effectively blends grandiose drums, ear-catching synths and dramatic vocal samples in just the right ratios to paint an appropriate backdrop for Benny’s bars. On ‘Sly Green’, where Benny rhymes about his authenticity compared to trend-riding rappers claiming street experience, the drums are larger than life and the synths are effervescent. Faster, thumping drums complement skipping, pensive synth taps on ‘Over the Limit’, a track that goes more biographical as Benny references the bond he has with his day ones, ducking the FBI and the strife that drug dealing put on his marriage and livelihood.
The mellower instrumentals in the second half of the album are impressive too and blend with Benny’s reflective wisdom to make for great tracks – on ‘New Streets’, sober drums, synths and piano keys layer a sweet blues vocal sample as Benny contests the glorification of a “game [that] come with way more consequences than jail”. He stresses to those unfamiliar with the lifestyle that there’s “two sides, one glamorous, other scandalous” where finding lessons in the losses is routine. He reflects further on his losses, particularly that of his brother, on ‘Trade it All’. Over gooey synths, stuttering drums and anguished vocal samples, he lets us know what keeps him grounded when surrounded by material wealth: “…so you can have it all / If it mean I get my brother back tomorrow”.
‘Famous’ is a track that comes short – the looped hollering vocal sample quickly gets annoying as Benny expresses, through pretty forgettable bars, how fame isn’t what he expected. ‘Timeless’ is also disappointing – the instrumental, which sounds like Street Fighter character selection menu music, is looped to the point of boring and Lil Wayne and Big Sean’s verses are generic. ‘Where Would I Go’ earlier in the album which features Rick Ross is a track I’m still unsure on. The beat starts with a slow, dreamy vocal sample that goes distorted and psychedelic as it gets submerged by a lumbering drum and then a weird synth jingle, while Benny reminisces on how he made it from “the concrete”. A better feature appears on ‘One Way Flight’ where Freddie Gibbs delivers a short but witty verse and a hilarious hook that sums up the predictability of masculine toxicity regardless of wealth: “You gon’ cry in that Toyota or this Maybach?”.
The last few tracks of the album close it on a high. On ‘Thank God I Made It’, a piano-led, pitched up vocal sample and distorted drum creates a mellow, Late Registration-like vibe. Benny starts his verse with an homage to his mother and matured reflections on the debt he owes her for making the job of being a single parent even more difficult. Through his experiences and losses, he’s come upon a new level of connection and devotion to family: “I look in my nephew eyes and I see my brother / Sometimes I gotta look away ‘cause it hurt so much”. The other two thirds of Griselda join Benny on ‘War Paint’, where off-kilter strings and dreamy wailing make the instrumental sound like something off an Earl Sweatshirt project. The final track, ‘Legend’, is one of the best of the album. Melodic keys over a shuffling drum make for a warm but striding backdrop to Benny’s four tight verses that effectively combine the braggadocious and reflective vibes of the album, with a trap drum layer coming in for alternate verses. “Checks overgrown, neck boulder stones / Ever since they said I’m goin’ pro, they said I’m the next so-and-so” is a catchy pair of bars if I ever heard one. It’s the combined quality of Benny’s flow, lyrical attention and raw wisdom – not just on this track, but across the album – that make undeniable justification for his assertion on the hook: “Said I’ma be a legend soon, I’m a legend now”. A legend in current day hip hop mind you, not just Buffalo.