A simple shortcut to getting a handle on Conway’s debut album G.O.A.T. is to scan the company he keeps. The Buffalo-based rapper previously released material through Eminem’s Shady imprint, but Eminem’s problematic pranksterism (recently rebranded) doesn’t quite give a proper sense of the grim and grimy (G.O.A.T. stands for “Grimiest of all time”) approach to hip-hop he tackles on these 10 tracks. A better indication of his confrontational, dark-alley hardcore rap are some of the guest rappers, most notably Wu-Tang alum Raekwon and the late Prodigy of Mobb Deep—two East Coast vets whose verses have seen their share of terror and menace. For while Conway—brother of fellow emcee Westside Gunn—hails from the chilly clime of Buffalo, his narratives follow the trail of blood and smoke left by ’90s-era New York City.
G.O.A.T. is at times a bleak and harrowing listen. It’s stunningly eerie from the outset, the leadoff track ushering in a suspenseful sample backing that sounds like the opening of a ’70s-era crime film. And once Conway begins setting the scene with descriptions of the casualties around him, things get much more gruesome a lot more quickly: “I heard his ribs crack and splash the wall with wig fragments… This happens every day where I’m from/there’s yellow tape and zipped plastic.” You can almost hear the splatter—it’s pretty gross, frankly, but it’s treated without any sense of glamorization or flash. The world Conway creates is one in which few moments of respite are to be found amid an intense, harsh environment.
It’s probably not too surprising that an album whose cover art features an abstract Osama Bin Laden is one whose central conceit is a cold, unforgiving landscape. Yet it’s consistently stunning in its presentation of such. The Daringer-produced “Arabian Sam’s” is simultaneously unbearably tense and strangely fun, the boom-bap beats and scratches providing a weirdly enjoyable juxtaposition against some Mobb Deep-like criminal narratives. “XXXtras,” also produced by Daringer, likewise turns what would have been a laid-back jazz-rap jam into a suspense-filled episode of paranoia and gunplay. And when Conway is paired with a bona fide legend on “Rodney Little,” namely Prodigy, he finds a suitable match for his Omar Little-style badass boasts: “Come at me and you gonna step on a landmine.”
At 10 tracks, G.O.A.T. is a lean but substantial and powerful listen, essentially entirely free of filler, lining up one incredible track of hardcore hip-hop after another. And in its 40-plus minutes, Conway employs his impressive talents staying laser focused on basically one thing: Taking down any unwise son of a bitch that dares to get in his way. The atmosphere throughout is sometimes unbearably tense—at no point would any of these tracks ever make sense being played at a strip club. Or, for that matter, a party; Conway inhabits a landscape in which pop-rap might as well not even exist. If there’s an appropriate venue for listening to G.O.A.T., it’s on headphones after midnight, when every stray sound and looming shadow seems like a genuine threat.
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.