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For the last several years, the name Griselda Records has gone from being relatively obscure to eliciting massive hype surrounding each project the Buffalo, New York-based label announces. What makes the accomplishment even more impressive is the fact that this buzz has been sustained over a nearly nonstop album release cycle as the group punches out project after project at a rate even Amazon might envy.
The reason for much of this relentless production is Conway The Machine, who lives up to his name with a ceaseless cadence of musical releases purveying Griselda’s usual gritty brand of luxury street rap. Marketed to a brand of hip-hop head rooted in New York City nostalgia and pop culture paraphernalia, the Griselda sound is what would happen if Wu-Tang Clan and G-Unit tapes, a handful of Attitude-era WWE magazines, and a Naruto box set were thrown in a blender and recorded over 1950s horror movie scores.
It makes sense, then, that the most natural fit for this type of aesthetic is a producer who is partly responsible for its proliferation in the 2000s and early blog rap era: Los Angeles-bred producer The Alchemist. On his latest release, Conway teams up with The Alchemist for Lulu, a seven-song joint EP that may very well foretell the direction for the next five years of rap music, despite being so nostalgic in theory. In truth, Conway and Alchemist use the seven tracks to try to push the genre forward, finding new avenues to convey their grimy style.
From the harrowing “14 Ki’s” to the elegant “The Contract” to the chilly “Gold BBS’s,” Lulu is primarily preoccupied with the inner workings of the drug trade, but eyes it all from the detached lens of Conway’s steady flow and Alchemist’s beat mastery. The pair has been working together for a while, but on Lulu, their chemistry elevates to a higher level — and this isn’t even their final form. That’s what Conway tells Uproxx via phone, with his predilection for recording with anime in the background even seeping into his conversation style.
When asked why now was the best time to release this particular collaboration, both Conway and Alchemist seem nonplussed. “Why not?” they both ask. They praise each other’s skillsets, with Alchemist calling Conway “one of the best rappers out right now” and Conway reciprocating: “When you got producers like Alchemist, you gotta do it.” It’s obvious that the mutual respect bleeds into the music itself, as their shared nostalgia for 1970s Blaxploitation flicks and 1990s wrestling references makes itself evident through vocal samples employed on Lulu as interludes, taking from The Mack and 2000s hood classic Paid In Full.
Cinema is even the inspiration for the album’s title. While Conway jokes that “Lulu” is actually the name of a lion — then a tiger, in deference to my questions about whether the duo has watched the viral Netflix miniseries Tiger King yet (they had not) — astute film buffs will recall that “Lulu” was the nickname of Luis Lujano, the drug dealer from Pain In Full. As Conway puts it, “Lulu’s the plug.”
However, despite all the drug references that permeate Griselda’s oeuvre, Conway wants me to know that he can do much more. He highlights the wrestling and fashion references that make up much of his lyrical catalog and even offers up a serviceable facsimile of the so-called “Migos flow” as proof that “It’s not just the grimy sh*t… What a lot of people don’t realize is I can do any style,” he says. “We can rhyme about bricks or wrestling. I can switch up the flow.” Meanwhile, Alchemist notes the irony in a West Coast-bred producer being so beloved on the opposite coast, despite the two hip-hop hubs’ past rivalries. “I’m just a student of the game,” he says. “I’m blessed to have been around some of the greats — Mobb Deep, Jadakiss, Nas.” He’s quick to add Conway to that canon.
When asked about the ultimate impact they want Lulu — and by extension, all of the Buffalo rhyme unit’s gritty-style, throwback rap music — to have on hip-hop, they demur. Instead, they say, they’re focusing on “rejoicing” in any success the EP garners, then getting back to work. When I relate that mentality to a recent encounter with a group of sidewalk hustlers still on the block despite “safer at home” orders in Los Angeles, Conway rejoins with the perfect response. “Hustlers don’t take days off.” Alchemist echoes: “The game will keep moving.”
Lulu is out now via ALC / Empire. Get it here.