Westside Gunn "Ten" Album Review

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An invigorating capstone on what has been a star-making era for Westside Gunn, "Ten" is a project which reasserts the otherworldly artistic vision that Gunn possesses that made him into a phenomenon in the first place

When drawing anything to a close, there’s always an inclination to want to go out on a high note. It could be as simple as an evening out with friends or as significant as the end of a tenure with a company. Naturally, we are predisposed to hope for an emphatic, romanticized swan song that will serve as a lasting testament to the beauty of what we’ve experienced. Unsurprisingly, the tendency to strive for a rousing ending, commemoratory of one’s accomplishments, has a foothold in the psyche of our favorite artists. 

With their legacy always hanging in the balance, drawing the curtain on an era of their career should be approached with a desire for a final flourish as opposed to a whimper. And if we know anything about his process, it’s something that’d likely be plaguing Westside Gunn on the pathway to releasing Ten.

As if you’ve successfully crafted a beloved mixtape series and then, botched the landing, the listener’s capacity for recency bias might have a knock-on effect on how audiences view your catalog as a whole. For the architect of the Griselda Records movement, who has emphasized the utmost importance of his due respect as a mastermind, this quandary probably weighed heavier on his shoulders than most.

“I had to celebrate this series which has meant so much to fans”, he said prior to its unveiling. “Everything I do sounds nothing like the last thing I did. That’s the creative in me, and I’m always going to push the culture forward. I’m ending this on a really special note with Ten.”

PARIS, FRANCE - JUNE 22: US rapper Westside Gunn seen wearing cap, jacket, iced necklace, iced audemars piguet royal oak, black pants, grey shirt outside Givenchy during Paris Fashion Week - Menswear Spring/Summer 2023 on June 22, 2022 in Paris, France. (Photo by Christian Vierig/Getty Images)

Preoccupied with timelessness yet rooted in his presence, long-term Griselda followers will be glad to know that the final installment of the Hitler Wears Hermes series doesn’t just uphold the benchmark of quality that he's established nor does it seek to replicate its sound.  Instead, Westside Gunn’s latest opus takes on a significance of its own that goes beyond its numerical value. On Ten, he’s a man with nothing left to prove. As a result, he oversees a celebration of the art and artists that he loves without ever losing the essence of what made these projects special. 

On numerous occasions, Gunn’s reiterated that he doesn’t have to rap and could retire any time he wants. With his place in history all but cemented several times, Westside Gunn has always been charitable with the runtimes of HWH projects. Throughout the series, he’s provided ample space for other MCs and producers to showcase their skills. This time, he takes this approach one step further, inhabiting a curatorial position from the beginning of the project. Brought together by a stellar cast of collaborators that often intermingle hip-hop titans with more untapped resources from the underground, this philosophy comes through from the outset of the project’s intro which sees AA Rashid returning to the Hitler Wears Hermes series to wax lyrical about the transformative value of art over a hypnotically soulful sample loop from RZA. 

Described by Rashid as a “guide to improve your life,” Westside is going all out to depict the power of what he’s obtained, and that carries through on the lumbering trap of “Flygod Jr.” Teed up by mixtape legend  DJ Drama, who describes the series as “cultural art at its finest,” Westside dips into his bag of tricks and switches up his flow with a hazier, sedated tone. Meanwhile, the production and the stellar feature from Doe Boy hint towards a different type of minimalism than we’re used to hearing from Westside. “Flygod Jr” serves as a fascinating anomaly that shows there’s still so much room for evolution residing within Gunn. While this track takes him out of his usual domain, it’s safe to say that there has been an emphasis on expanding on the preexisting “sound” synonymous with Griselda.

On practically every beat they provide, you can hear the crop of producers, such as Conductor Williams and Denny LaFlare, push themselves to find new pockets within the aura that they’re renowned for. From the sweepingly cinematic quality of “Nigo Louis” – which comes with the customary appearance of Gunn’s daughter –  to interpolating Montell Jordan across the heavy-hitting and gloriously unsettling cut that is “BDP” and tapping into the expansive realm of jazz-rock alongside Pete Rock on the arresting “Mac Don’t Stop,” there’s no idea nor sound was too abstract nor unconventional to be worthy of inclusion on Ten.

Sporting the inviting wonkiness and eccentricity of some of MF DOOM’s work, it’s even more evident in “Shootouts In Soho. The A$AP Rocky-assisted record speaks to the larger philosophy behind Ten in that it is an exercise in exploration and fostering connections that may have never existed otherwise. Marking the first on-wax collision between A$AP Rocky and Stove God Cooks, Westside Gunn proves that he’s the only person who’d have the audacity to align Flacko’s understated cool with the characteristically wry dope-slinging exploits of regular collaborator Stove God. Furthermore, he’s also the only person that’d be able to bring the best out of each man while doing so. 

Across the entirety of the project, this capacity for coaxing greatness out of each party seldom wanes. Although his ability to fuse disparate worlds together is well documented, one of Westside Gunn’s greatest yet most overlooked strengths is as a motivator. When you hear an artist on Ten, you get a real sense that Gunn successfully communicated the gravity of the project to them in a way that’s only spurred them on. 

Set against Conductor Williams’s dreamy, ensnaring production, “Peppas” sees Black Star’s Yasiin Bey and Talib Kweli rhyme with the sort of clarity and might that made their debut album into a classic. At the same time, the Griselda founder strives to rise to the occasion in his own right and keep up with the greats. 

“Science Class” is a musical conference of New York greats, both old and new, rendered by Swizz Beats in a way that is almost reminiscent of some of Jay Electronica’s livelier productions. Once again, the verses from Busta, Raekwon, and Ghostface Killah feel like anything but an obligation. For instance, the Flipmode icon takes the concept of a broken bond between comrades and runs with it in detail. “Twenty years of friendship but now I'm so shameful/ I co-signed the weakest link when I threw on the cable/ Come clean, my n***a, we're putting' the truth on the table/ I leave you all to refer to the story of Cain and Abel,” Busta raps. 

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - FEBRUARY 09: Rapper Westside Gunn is seen arriving to the Palm Angels Fashion Show during New York Fashion Week on February 09, 2020 in New York City. (Photo by Gilbert Carrasquillo/GC Images)

In many ways, Ten often feels like a long-form ode to posse cuts. Still, only a few songs can measure up to the combined diverse power of Run The Jewels, Westside Gunn, and Stove God Cooks on “Switches On Everything.” Brought to life over a fascinatingly sparse and synth-heavy beat from Montreal’s Mike Shabb, Gunn happily resides on the hook while El-P and Killer Mike harken back to their respective underground roots. In the case of the former leader of Def Jux, West’s presence implores the producer/rapper to spit in a way that is a joy to behold, firing off a series of exquisite bars that are both intricate and effortless like, “Spray these crumbs with dirty pen work/ Put the snub to every beat/ Every clause is non-compete/ It is the law, you eat my cleats.” Meanwhile, Stove God’s verse is yet another offering that helps to make him a star of the project. Bars like, “Last shit I cooked would’ve got five Pyrexes in the Source,” are deserving of a top-billing alongside Gunn. These performances from Stove God are a testament to why he’s one of the most engaging voices in the game today. 

Despite the whole tape feeling like an homage to everything Westside Gunn has accomplished under the banner of Griselda, this is never more apparent than on the sprawling, 10-minute lyrical odyssey of “Red Death.” Named after the Buffalo-born wrestler Daniel Garcia that Westside recently accompanied to the ring on AEW Dynamite, the track serves as a tribute to this contained golden age that Gunn has been instrumental in ushering in. Laden with inventive coke bars, a fascinating array of varied voices, and a tonally perfect instrumental from The Alchemist, there was simply no other way to conclude the series than with colossal verses from the old guard of Benny The Butcher & Conway, alongside the new wave of the roster’s talent, Rome Streetz and Armani Caesar. Rounded off with a bittersweet outro from DJ Drama, the numerous comparisons to successful movie franchises may seem overblown, but it’s hard to argue that the latter installments of Hitler Wears Hermes didn’t begin to have that same degree of anticipation as any great blockbuster. 

An invigorating capstone on what has been a star-making era for both Westside Gunn and his entire camp of proteges and contemporaries, Ten is a project which reasserts the otherworldly artistic vision that Gunn possesses that made him into a phenomenon in the first place. If you thought for a second that Westside’s powers were diminishing, then the talents that he exhibits as an executive producer and artist on Ten should be all of the evidence you need to renew your faith in all things pertaining to the Flygod.

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