Music

Benny The Butcher’s Masterful ‘Burden Of Proof’ Is Griselda’s First Bid For Mainstream Acclaim

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At this point, there’s little reason to rehash the prolificacy of Buffalo, New York-based indie rap label Griselda Records. It’s like rain in November or snow in January or fires in California. It just is. But there has been one aspect of their extreme efficiency that’s been a concern for some observers. While their fans rave about the group’s authenticity, their lyrical complexity, and the cohesion of their presentation from the top down, detractors have pointed out that the similarity of their releases so far can make them sound one-note.

Since they signed their distribution deal with Shady Records, those critiques have become even more pointed; how can you expect to capitalize on the newfound mainstream exposure that comes from association with Eminem without making at least a small overture toward mainstream tastes? Even in 2020, they’ve mostly stuck to their gun ad-libs, continuing to tap in-house producer Daringer and longtime collaborators like The Alchemist for muted soul loops, 1950s horror organs, and muffled drums, becoming something of a meme in the process.

However, the capstone on Griselda’s already outstanding 2020 is Benny The Butcher’s masterful Burden Of Proof and as it turns out, they’ve saved the best for last. Like Marvel crowning its initial run of superhero successes with The Avengers in 2012, Burden Of Proof doesn’t so much signal a course correction as a tide change, a shifting of the paradigm surrounding not only Griselda’s gritty sounds but also the waning East Coast gangsta rap genre as a whole.

That isn’t to say that the scene has been on life support or anything. In addition to the Griselda Records constellation of releases this year — beginning with Conway’s Lulu and From King To A God and including no less than three Westside Gunn projects and Armani Caesar’s eye-opening debut — 2020 has also seen warmly received releases from the likes of Griselda’s Midwestern cousins Freddie Gibbs and Boldy James. But the charts have continued to be dominated by spacey trap and more upbeat pop-rap as hip-hop’s sound has diffused across more and more musical territory from pop to rock to electronic dance music.

Benny might be the key to changing all that, with a secret weapon who has recently begun to have a breakout of his own. Hit-Boy was curiously written off by a lot of audiences because that’s the sort of thing that happens when their initial awareness of you stems from one of the biggest mega-hits of the past decade. Comparing the success of any of HB’s most successful single placements to that of “N****s In Paris” would make it look like a fall off, but if you removed that song from his discography and take a step back, he’s still lived up to his name multiple times over.

Earlier this year, rap fans were reminded just how deep the Fontana, California producer’s big bag of tricks really goes as he executive-produced comeback albums for no less than three huge names across two generations of rap stars. Big Sean’s Detroit 2, Dom Kennedy’s Rap & Roll, and Nas’ King’s Disease were all blessed by Hit-Boy, proving his versatility could only be matched by the austerity he brought to projects from three solid artists who’ve nonetheless been derided for their past efforts. After rescuing Nas from the “terrible ear for beats” critiques and revitalizing Big Sean’s flagging popularity, linking up with Benny must seem like a completely different challenge.

And yet, both artists handle it with flying colors. Benny has often been hailed by Griselda fans as the lyrical leader of the core trio even as Gunn is considered the brains of the operation. He proves why on tracks like “One Way Flight” with Freddie Gibbs and “Timeless,” where he effortlessly trades bars with the much more mainstream Lil Wayne and Big Sean. While he never strays too far from the Griselda formula topic-wise, Hit-Boy brings verve and effervescence to the proceedings, shifting Benny’s usual mode from “dirge-like” to borderline celebratory — a vibe that actually fits the content much better.

When Benny talks about going from $100 stickups to six-figure deals, Hit-Boy makes it sound like a victory, where usually you only get the menace. It’s the first time a Griselda release has mirrored the shift in their condition from underground underdogs to budding major-label stars. This is the sound that Hit-Boy first cultivated nearly a decade ago with Dom Kennedy and Big Sean, rappers who have trafficked in boastful rags-to-financial independence rhymes since early in their careers as they took stock early. Yes, they’re all great rhymers, but the story is what’ll always set great rhymers apart from great artists. And every great story needs great background music.

With Burden Of Proof, Griselda Records finally finds that last element. Now, it’s up to the group to capitalize on the moment. While they’ve proven countless times — literally, I can’t count all their releases over the last five years, let alone their entire 10-year existence — that they can absolutely dominate their lane, they’ll truly flourish when they start to experiment, trying new sounds and pushing the boundaries of what constitutes the “Griselda sound” with an expended palette that can appeal to more than just fans of murky samples and tough talk. Hip-hop is bigger and more diverse than ever and now they have proof that they can be too.

Burden Of Proof is out now via Griselda Records / EMPIRE. Get it here.

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