Freddie Gibbs, Griselda, Boldy James, Alchemist & the new-old sound of rap in 2020
The ever-evolving, fast-paced world of rap music is constantly full of new trends and new sounds, but sometimes old sounds re-emerge, and the future is shaped by the past. 2020 has had no lack of new artists making new sounds, but three of the year’s best rap albums have come from artists who have been around for a bit, and who make vintage-sounding rap music that could’ve come out a quarter-century ago: Freddie Gibbs & The Alchemist's Alfredo, Boldy James & The Alchemist's The Price of Tea In China, and Westside Gunn's Pray For Paris.
All three of these albums feature dusty, psychedelic production and sharp, gritty rapping that cuts right through the haze, and all three are closely related. The Alchemist produced Freddie's and Boldy's albums, and two songs on Westside Gunn's. Freddie appears on both other albums, and Boldy appears on Pray For Paris. Westside Gunn's Griselda partners Conway the Machine and Benny the Butcher appear on both Pray For Paris and Alfredo and Benny is on The Price of Tea In China too. Conway also released the LULU EP this year, entirely produced by The Alchemist. Boldy James and The Alchemist both joined Griselda on stage on tour earlier this year before COVID-19 hit, and it was announced on stage in Boldy's hometown of Detroit that Boldy is signing to Griselda Records and Westside Gunn will be executive producing his next project. On his recent, much-publicized appearance on the Bootleg Kev podcast, Freddie called Westside Gunn a genius and named Benny the Butcher as one of the best rappers going.
Those three projects have helped turn this throwback, '90s-style sound from a niche into a movement. Not only did they all drop within four months of each other, but they're all exceptional and they all go beyond the surface level revivalism. They sound like the '90s, but albums also didn't sound quite like this in the '90s; there's new perspective involved too. And though it's all happening in a major way right now, we've been building towards this moment for a while.
Freddie Gibbs, who hails from Gary, Indiana, was supposed to have his moment back in 2006, when he signed to Interscope, but they dropped him before his debut album ever came out. He wasn't just another major label casualty though; in 2009 he released some of the music from that aborted album on 2009's free mixtape The Miseducation of Freddie Gibbs, and continued to benefit from the thriving new era of free internet mixtapes which helped overturn the stagnant rap mainstream of the late 2000s and make way for a new wave of rappers like Drake, Kendrick Lamar and the Black Hippy crew, Odd Future, A$AP Mob, Danny Brown, Big K.R.I.T., and others, many of whom Freddie was frequently appearing on tracks with at the time. He dropped a handful of buzzed-about projects in the early '10s -- the Str8 Killa EP, Cold Day In Hell, Baby Face Killa. Most of it was very good, but in hindsight, there were three releases in that era that really set the tone for the Freddie Gibbs of today, all from 2011: the Statik Selektah-produced Lord Giveth, Lord Taketh Away EP, the Madlib-produced "Thuggin'" single, and the song "Scottie Pippen" that Freddie featured on from Curren$y & The Alchemist's album Covert Coup.
As music critic Gary Suarez pointed out in his NPR review of Alfredo, the EP with Statik Selektah was the first project to prove that Freddie excels most when he's working in the one-rapper-one-producer format. He and Statik are a great team and that EP holds up (if you haven't heard it in a while or ever, it's worth changing that), but it was the producers behind those other two songs that Freddie would go on to have frequent collaborative relationships with. Freddie and Madlib followed "Thuggin'" with "Shame" in 2012 and "Deeper" in 2013 before finally releasing the collaborative full-length album Piñata in 2014, featuring all three of those singles and of-the-moment appearances by Danny Brown, Earl Sweatshirt, Ab-Soul, and more that only feel more exciting in hindsight. Piñata elevated Freddie from a great rapper to a great rapper with a classic album, and his relationship with Madlib proved to be more than a one-off. In 2019, they released another album, Bandana (featuring Black Thought, Pusha T, Killer Mike, and more), and it's at least as good. (We named it the 48th best rap or R&B album of the decade.)
MadGibbs seemed like the ultimate version of Freddie Gibbs for a while, but his collaborations with The Alchemist are arguably even better. After working together on "Scottie Pippen" in 2011, Freddie, Alchemist, and Curren$y teamed up again in 2015 on "Fetti" from The Alchemist and Oh No's (Madlib's real-life brother and one half of Gangrene with Alchemist) Grand Theft Auto V album Welcome to Los Santos. "Fetti" also became the name of the very good collaborative album that Freddie, Curren$y, and The Alchemist released in 2018. As good as Fetti is, it's only a taste of how much Freddie and The Alchemist would gel on this year's Alfredo. They both sound more confidently laid-back than ever before on it. Their styles meet perfectly in the middle.
Around the time Freddie Gibbs was reinventing himself with his string of early '10s mixtapes, Detroit rapper Boldy James was garnering some hype thanks to a few collaborations with then-buzzy duo The Cool Kids (whose Chuck Inglish is Boldy's cousin), and eventually he too linked up with The Alchemist, who produced the entirety of his 2013 debut album My 1st Chemistry Set. Like Piñata, it boasted impressive of-the-moment guest appearances like Earl Sweatshirt, Action Bronson, and Vince Staples, the latter of whom reprised his role on this year's The Price of Tea In China. Boldy and Alchemist proved to be a dynamic duo on M.1.C.S., with Boldy's subtle yet deadly style matching perfectly with Alchemist's atmospheric production. It's a great album, but the best was yet to come.
Fast forward to 2019, Boldy reunited with The Alchemist a few times. They put out the Boldface EP together, Boldy appeared on two of the three songs on The Cool Kids & The Alchemist's Layups EP, and Boldy and The Alchemist released their best song together yet, "Ocean Prime," on Alchemist's guest-filled Yacht Rock 2 album. Alchemist had been honing a retro-yet-futuristic production style since his late '90s collaborations with Mobb Deep, but the warm, hazy, jazzy sound that he's dominating 2020 with is something that he began perfecting with a series of EPs over the past couple years: Lunch Meat, Bread, and Yacht Rock 2. Across those three EPs, he put out collaborations with all three Griselda members, Earl Sweatshirt, Black Thought, Roc Marciano, Action Bronson, and more, and more so than any of the many other Alchemist productions, these songs sound like direct predecessors to the music he's making now. Among them is the aforementioned "Ocean Prime," which finds Boldy James sounding smoother and more confident than ever over a lively jazz backdrop, and Boldy and Alchemist brought that same energy to this year's The Price of Tea In China.
Compared to Alfredo, The Price of Tea In China is a little less immediate but it sneaks up on you. It's home to standout Freddie Gibbs, Benny the Butcher, and Vince Staples verses, and I think it's fair to assume that those comparatively more popular rappers have helped draw attention to this album. But once you're sucked into its world, it's impossible to get Boldy James' voice out of your head. His rapping is more somber and deadpan than his more famous guests, but once it hits you, it's contagious.
One thing that's interesting about the artists leading the charge of the new old sound of rap in 2020 is that they're tied together by sound and likemindedness but not by region. There's Freddie Gibbs from Indiana, Boldy James from Detroit, Alchemist from California, and Griselda from a city that's never really had a major presence in rap: Buffalo, New York. Griselda are clearly inspired by the classic sound of New York City acts like Alchemist collaborators Mobb Deep and The LOX, but despite technically being part of the same state, that influence is definitely not a byproduct of proximity. It's 2020 and the best current NYC-style rappers are from Buffalo. That's just the way it is.
Griselda's moment has been a long time coming. Brothers Westside Gunn and Conway the Machine formed the label in 2014 to release their own projects, and eventually they signed their cousin Benny the Butcher. Benny and Conway are the group's most skilled rappers, while WSG is the visionary, the expert curator. In 2017, Griselda inked a deal with Shady Records, the smartest move that Eminem (whose longtime tour DJ is The Alchemist) has made in a while, and in 2019, Griselda released their first crew album and Shady Records debut, the excellent WWCD. WSG, Conway, and Benny had been extremely prolific for years, with releases dating as far back as the 2000s and really picking up in the mid 2010s, so they aren't "new" artists by any means but WWCD still served as an introduction to the group for many. It was their major label debut, it was a commercial and critical success, and their fame has been skyrocketing since. To support it, they performed its single "Dr. Bird's" on Fallon earlier this year. More recently, Benny and Conway appeared side by side on "Russian Roulette" a standout bonus track on Lil Wayne's chart-topping Funeral album. Both Benny and Conway say they have Drake collaborations in the works. "I feel like I’m going to bring the streets back to the forefront," Benny told Complex. "That’s what you get when you get a song with Benny and Drake."
WWCD was the biggest Griselda project of 2019, but the best was Benny's The Plugs I Met. Among its guests are Black Thought, Jadakiss, and Pusha T -- all legendary lifers who both influenced the current new-old rap movement and are part of it -- yet it's still Benny's punchlines that leave the most impact. The Plugs I Met may be the best Griselda project yet, though Pray For Paris gives it a run for its money. Unlike Alfredo and The Price of Tea In China, Pray For Paris doesn't follow the one-rapper-one-producer format, but WSG's vision ties it all together. It brings together beats by Alchemist, in-house Griselda producer Daringer, legends like DJ Premier and DJ Muggs, and others, and it all flows together with extreme focus. Alongside the Griselda crew, Freddie, and Boldy and other '90s-rap true believers like Roc Marciano and Joey Bada$$ (who's on the verge of his own comeback this year), the album features a beat ("Party Wit Pop Smoke") and a verse ("327") by one particularly crucial collaborator: Tyler, the Creator.
Fresh off almost entirely abandoning rap on his chart-topping, Grammy Award-winning, arena-tour-supported, hugely acclaimed IGOR, Tyler first used Pray For Paris and then also Alfredo for the reemergence of Tyler, the Rapper. It's mutually beneficial; the very famous Tyler has no doubt helped bring attention to WSG and Freddie's new projects, and their world allowed him to remind us how good he is at gritty rap when he wants to be. Tyler's early projects had no lack of grit, but his style on these two albums differs from his own early work. Unlike his former Odd Future groupmate Earl Sweatshirt -- who's a regular in Alchemist's world and whose excellent Alchemist-produced 2020 single "Whole World" belongs on any playlist that's got Freddie, Boldy, and Griselda's new material -- Tyler never really went in this direction before. It's more "traditional" for him, but also it isn't. It feels fresh, and it suits him well.
Pray For Paris has helped continue to put Westside Gunn and Griselda on the map, but it hasn't changed their approach. WSG remains just as prolific and he already released a second album of 2020, Flygod Is An Awesome God 2. That one includes "Buffs vs. Wires," which features both Benny the Butcher and Boldy James, but my favorite verse on the album comes from a much newer artist who just signed to Griselda: Armani Caesar. It's technically a mixtape and not as "classic album" sounding as Pray For Paris, but it's good and should not go overlooked. Conway meanwhile released the aforementioned Alchemist-produced LULU EP and the Big Ghost Ltd-produced No One Mourns The Wicked EP, and he's supposed to release his new album From King To God this year too (which reportedly features both Freddie and Alchemist). Benny's got some stuff up his sleeve too. Boldy James not only has that project for Griselda on the way, but he and producer/composer Sterling Toles are releasing their long-in-the-works full-band, jazz-rap album Manger on McNichols on July 22 (update: out now).
Griselda, Freddie Gibbs, Boldy James, and The Alchemist are leading the charge right now when it comes to this type of music in 2020, but we may soon be adding the legendary Black Thought's name to that list too, as his anticipated new project Streams of Thought, Vol. 3: Cane and Able drops on August 28. The Roots' frontman needs no introduction, but like The Alchemist, he's been reinventing himself lately. Not only does he shine on aforementioned projects like Bandana, The Plugs I Met, and Bread, but he actually didn't properly begin his solo career until 2018's excellent Streams of Thought, Vols. 1 & 2, which came 25 full years after The Roots' first album. He's allowed to sound like '90s rap without it being "revival" since he helped create the sound of '90s rap, but the music he's making now doesn't really sound like the music he was making then. He's in a whole new stage of his career; his guest verses always steal the show, and his solo releases have all been essential so far. Pusha T and Killer Mike, who both also continue to age gracefully and shape the sound of current rap music, are among the guests on Black Thought's upcoming release.
Black Thought's also on the great new album by another rising Buffalo rapper, Che Noir, who followed the one-rapper-one-producer format and made her new record As God Intended with Detroit producer Apollo Brown, who's up there with The Alchemist and Statik Selektah when it comes to visionary, '90s-style producers. It's also worth keeping your eyes on the upcoming album by Buffalo trio 14 trapdoors, Eileen, which was entirely produced by frequent Griselda collaborator Camoflauge Monk (who did two tracks on Pray For Paris) and features Benny, Boldy James, Royce Da 5'9", Skyzoo, Smoke DZA, Che Noir, and more. Flee Lord, who was a protégé of the late Prodigy of Mobb Deep and who's now a Griselda associate, has been releasing one project a month this year, including May's great Hand Me My Flowers, entirely produced by Bronx legend Buckwild. His next one, The People's Champ, comes out July 31 and was produced by the legendary Pete Rock. This moment feels like it's in full force right now, and judging by the way things have been going, we can only assume there's still much more to come.
Update: Since this article was published, the following 2020 albums came out: Westside Gunn's Who Made The Sunshine, Conway the Machine's From King to a GOD, Benny the Butcher's Burden of Proof, Benny the Butcher & DJ Drama Present Black Soprano Family, Black Thought's Streams of Thought, Vol. 3: Cane and Able, Boldy James' The Versace Tape and Manger On McNichols (with Sterling Toles), and Armani Caesar's The Liz.
Stream Alfredo, Pray For Paris, and The Price of Tea In China: