There was a noticeable slow down in output from the Griselda camp in 2017. At least compared to years past when we received 10 projects of impressively consistent quality in 18 months. After 2016, I didn’t think we’d go a full year without a decadent, ultra-violent, onomatopoeia laced project from everyone’s favorite fashion designer, turned manager, turned rapper; Westside Gunn. Sure, earlier this year we got a massive Hitler On Steroids mixtape punctuating Griselda’s newfound partnership with Eminem and Shady Records. However, all but 7 of those 23 songs were highlights from Griselda’s exulted 2015-2016 run. We got a handful of new tracks over the summer but nothing in the ways of a real project. Now the Fly God himself has returned to conclude the Hitler Wears Hermes series he began back in 2012 and birthed the movement that Griselda became. Is it worth the wait? Does it live up to the title it holds?
HWH5 doesn’t stray from Griselda’s well established formula. The only surprise this go round is the track list. It’s very reminiscent of HWH2; both installments clock in at 9 tracks and 24 minutes, are almost entirely produced by Daringer and have 4 features, including Conway and Keisha Plum. A departure from the expansive, feature heavy content I came accustomed to in 2016 and not what I was expecting after a year sabbatical. Last year Westside Gunn positioned himself in a bit of DJ Khaled role while still rapping. His top-notch ear for both production and rapping culminated in the track lists for his projects becoming a who’s who of underground hip-hop with the best emcees and producers coming together; veterans like Roc Marciano and Alchemist to in-house new-comers like Benny and Camouflage Monk. Westside’s unrestrained energy and colorfully visual lyrics sound great on the beats he picks. But his raps have almost no range in subject and not much in the ways of depth or complexity. West himself acknowledges Benny and Conway are the true lyricists of the crew and is probably why he leaves stuff like BET Cyphers to them. This is why the features added the perfect depth and variance to Westside’s addicting aesthetic, becoming a staple and highlight of his albums for me.
But on HWH5, until the 14th minute of this 24 minute tape we get Westside Gunn and nothing but Westside Gunn-save for a Keisha Plum poem on track 1 I could’ve just done without. And these 14 minutes feel underwhelming. But I don’t know how much of that is really Westside Gunn’s fault. Keisha’s Plum Poety isn’t my only problem on the opening track “Hebru“; the beat sounds more like something you’d find searching “Daringer type beat” on YouTube than an actual Daringer beat. Compare this track to the opening on 2016’s FlyGod, “Dunks” and I think you’ll know exactly what I mean. And when HWH4 opened with Conway spitting what became the most heralded verse in Griselda’s esteemed catalog on “The Cow“, this is definitely a step back. The next track “Mac 15s” sounds more like true Daringer but also like it would be much better fit for a Conway solo joint. Yet Conway doesn’t even make an appearance here. “B Lunch” produced by Knxwledge, has a fantastic jazzy beat that West sounds perfect on. But it seems to be crying out for the effortless Hall and Nash tag-team trade-off we’ve come to love. Yet again Conway is nowhere to be found. Same goes, to a lesser extent, for the Daringer produced “Mickey Sunday“. “OG MA” isn’t bad but isn’t great either; sounding a bit like a left over from FlyGod. And on a 18 track project like FlyGod that can afford some filler, it would work. But not on a 8 song project that still hasn’t found its footing over a third way through.
The one man show comes to an end on track 6 “Down State“. Conway finally pops his head in for 2 uncreditted bars but the baton isn’t truly passed until Styles P comes in for a surprisingly impressive verse. Styles is a legend but he’s not known in hip-hop circles as the most savvy wordsmith. But he delivered what I think is the best verse of the album, better than most verses I’ve heard from Jada in recent years in fact. Benny, arguably the best spitter in Griselda, is also featured on the track but doesn’t deliver to his usual high standard or even the standard set by Styles. “Ayo it’s the Butcher lemme get somethin’” he mutters as soon as Styles P’s verse ends. And that’s kind of how it feels, like Benny’s just there to rap with Styles P. Benny has my favorite verses on Griselda songs and those verses feel deep and personal; lengthy and detailed. This still feels personal but not as potent, almost as if he didn’t take as much time on it. Even his vocals on the track sound as if they were rushed in at the end; either not fully mixed or just recorded in an inferior studio.
After the mini posse-cut is the solo cut “Finn Baylor” which has a sample that sounds eerily similar to “Mr. T” from FlyGod. But it sounds lovely and different enough from last years model. Westside’s high raspy voice sounds great over the sparse heavenly soul beat as he raps about soul about sneakers, prison, cooking crack, 4 door sports cars and wrestlers all while feeling natural and not like he’s following his own formula; which I think will be Griselda’s biggest challenge going forward. Halfway through rapping to address his adversaries straight forwardly. This is the one point of the album where I feel a sense of growth from Westside. “I’m on tour; I got a show tomorrow, a show a day after that, a show a day after that, a show the day after that and a show a day after that motherfucker!” He’s speaking on his present, on his victory. Westside didn’t even rap til Conway got shot and had to stop rapping. That’s when West started a label and releasing his own records and just a few years later signed an imprint deal with Eminem. That’s definitely a story worth telling, if not bragging about. And given how Westside Gunn loves to brag, it seems odd there’s no talk of his newfound success here.
The final song on HWH5 is my favorite, “RIP Bobby“. It gives us what I thought was missing the whole album, Westside Gunn and Conway trading bars over slow driving soul beats. And it delivers. In fact, it delivers twice. The track’s split in 2 with one beat from Daringer and one from Alchemist, both complimenting each other as well as Wesitside and Conway. And when I thought he was running out, Conway comes up with more clever ways to talk about shooting you (“Teechie 97s, I’m a rhyming legend/youngin’ fire his weapon and slide a shell inside your melon“)
Ultimately I could see Hitler Wears Hermes 5 satisfying Westside Gunn fans since it delivers most of what they have come to love and expect. But for the unfamiliar, I wouldn’t consider this a good starting point to get into Westside Gunn; he already has nearly a dozen albums that have done what this album does, only does it better. Or at least more consistently. The lack of features and ingenuity this time or more importantly a deadly pairing of lackluster songs and a short run-time will make HWH5 go down as my least favorite installment and after a year, I was hoping for a bit more. But in such a strong series that doesn’t mean there still aren’t a few tracks I will be coming back to.