Review Summary: Time to bend the knee.
The Machine is on the warpath. Viewing back to 2012, it’s very likely a reality such as this seemed improbable, yet Conway transformed the impossible into a mission statement. The resilient Price, brought to the brink by a shooting that impacted his head and neck, managed to survive against the odds. Now, that which had been used to take his life fueled his resurrection. By channeling the grit of the Buffalo underground into prose that never shied from undisguised veracity, he ventures to connect his personal realm with the observations he accumulated as he wandered about the criminal landscape. It’s a style that was perfectly complemented by Demond Price’s hypnotizingly smooth flow, his voice stoic versus a world that actively strives to knock down those struggling to reach the top. A stray listener would never be able to perceive the fact that the charismatic MC suffered from Bell’s palsy as a result of the shooting; Conway’s ironclad control over a provided tune is unquestionable, managed with commendable strength, wordplay, and confidence to eliminate doubt of the young artist’s ascension. No matter where rap aficionados turned in 2020, the Machine was there, unleashing From King to a God
to conquer the East Coast scene, simultaneously revealing No One Mourns the Wicked
months prior. Whereas the former sported a more minimalistic approach fitting for Griselda’s typical output—the label Demond called home—pushing Conway’s vocals to the forefront as the primary feature, the latter hooked up with Big Ghost Ltd and delved into a more theatrical realm. Harmonizing with two different methods and nailing both seemed sufficient proof of Price’s attainment of the underground crown—but history has shown already that Demond is not the kind to sit still and accept circumstances. Thus, the victory lap begins: Conway reunites in 2021 with the bombastic flair of Big Ghost Ltd in If It Bleeds It Can Be Killed
, building off the seemingly unstoppable momentum that now propels the Machine towards the apex he craved to achieve.
This second collaboration with the enigmatic blogger-turned-producer marks a return to dramatic beats. Naturally, Conway’s primary prowess—detailed, genuine descriptions of existence in the backstreets of Buffalo, branching off of it to inject commentary on societal inequalities, all of which are packaged alongside his distinctive delivery—is what inevitably receives the most attention in the mix. However, as opposed to being completely subservient to the writing, Big Ghost assumes a much larger responsibility, joining forces with Demond to supply much more vibrant beats, both forces merging to craft a disc that augments the rapper’s flow. Harkening back to motifs of the 90s while also taking cues from contemporaries, Price and Big Ghost supply orchestras, pianos, guitar riffs and synths aplenty, twisting disparate elements in a rapper’s playground that lets Conway flourish beyond his normal zone. In “Kill All Rats,” the producer opts for a relatively more subdued role, offering an ominous, growling synth line to support the writing. Put in such a setting where electronics hum like saws, Demond sounds suitably vicious, accruing intimidating momentum that opens the door for a feature by Rome Streetz. Both rappers match the tone of the tune by using their respective voices to instill fear in those that attempt to question their authority. Placed opposite of such an aesthetic is “Losses to Blessings “; Big Ghost is far from the ensemble cast in this particular show. As Conway enters the scene with a despondent refrain, his characteristic drawl sounding lost when seeing the departures around him, horns sneak into proceedings, melancholic keys included to complete the noir landscape. Halfway through, Ghost executes a beat change that seamlessly transitions to a more pensive, positive state. Both modern themes and past techniques are brought into the fold without being jarring to Conway’s bravura.
A set of great beats by themselves would be incomplete if not for how well they accompany the man at the helm. What makes a track such as “Losses to Blessings” click, for instance, is the chemistry evident between Conway and his latest partner in crime. As soon as the aforementioned shift is executed, the rapping alters its approach accordingly, delving into lamentation while struggling to find positive news in overwhelming negativity. It’s obvious that both individuals are comfortable working with each other; Price runs amok in a variety of different contexts, interacting directly with whatever instrumentals Ghost brings to the table. The gravity of reality that the MC can imbue into a given number is perfectly encapsulated in “Red Beams,” the foreboding delivery of the verses intermingling with the threatening, low synth line. Lurking underneath Conway’s trademark confidence, the electronic component adds an even darker atmosphere to the formation—an environment the bars thrive inside, relishing in career success and edging out detractors. Adding further depth are the dramatic swells of string instruments that Ghost slips into the background, putting an element of the histrionic into the entry. Placed into the more lively, energetic “Sons of Kings,” the Machine capitalizes on the rocking piano beat, detailing his increase in prestige and resources, making moves in the rap scene as his voice barges through the instrumental passages, setting the stage for another solid feature crafted by Knowledge the Pirate. Across all tracks, composure is discovered in droves. Given that he’s known for his booming, commanding sound, possessing a sort of street wisdom belying his years, pairing Conway with equally vivacious beats seems a natural connection. Be it the cascading, glittering synth of “Toast” or the understated thrill of “Kill All Rats,” Price and Ghost are consistently on the same page. Keys, orchestras, and choirs erect towering buildings, alleyways, and populate them, laying out the Buffalo Demond was forced to navigate, never avoiding the full scope of the danger.
If there was to be any knock against the power of this partnership, it would be the disconnect that can be felt when all cuts are amassed for a complete disc. The variety of musical subjects that Big Ghost dabbles in can make for jagged movements between separate entries. Conway is generally the very model of consistency, leaping from slower cadences to more upbeat forays, the liveliness of his conveyance unfaltering. When describing drug running escapades, false friends, and defending turf, the rapper spits out phrases with palpable force. Though a one-trick-pony in a certain regard—gangster tales, all of which are rather similar, are the order of the day, right beside f*cking hoes and movin’ moolah—the lyrical content Price arranges is par for the course at this juncture; it is who he is, the life he lived, and where he is most relaxed in his flow, for better and for worse. However, the producer backing him, experimenting with the old-school and the new-school, doesn’t often concentrate on the progression of the LP in its entirety. Individual songs can be impeccable earworms, yet when linked to fellow numbers, the album loses drive. Stepping from the menacing “Red Beams” straight towards the concluding “Forever Ago” is a poor decision when assessing the pace of the release. The shadowy air surrounding the former track and its eerie beat clash immediately with the longing, choir-infused compositions of the latter. On a lyrical level, “Forever Ago” avoids the braggadocio and intimidation, instead exhibiting Conway at an unexpectedly genuine state, opening up about self-doubt and paranoia. The same divide is observed to a degree between lead single “Toast” and the preceding “Kill All Rats.” While undeniably compelling individually, the songs do not always make for a smooth listening in total.
Specific other avenues fail to pan out as amicably as intended. The incredibly slow rhythm of “Highly Praised” leaves much to be desired, Conway’s voice stumbling about the plodding tempo, and the introductory monologue-style tune “Commencement” is absent of the strength that generally carries the LP—the less said about the “deez nuts” drop, the better. It may not equate to a magnum opus, but Price’s second rendezvous with Big Ghost is nothing short of a home run by an artist nearing the apex of their game. With now his third straight project in a row, the Machine has demonstrated that nothing short of a John Connor wannabe is capable of breaking his stride. It’s not even possible to allege that Demond has in any way discovered the exact formula to his success; each consecutive record has maintained a separation from the last, preventing any work from falling into a stale routine. Bounding between Griselda and his newfound synergy with Big Ghost Ltd, Conway displays his more potent traits in a multitude of contexts. What remains consistent throughout, regardless of precise presentation, is the poise that buttresses nearly all verses that emerge from the MC’s mouth. Having survived the very terror he now injects into his lyrics, Price is unafraid of challengers. If he wants to crown himself the current God of rap? Provided his bourgeoning body of work, there’s a claim to be made. The man rose from a life-or-death scenario and prospered when all signs point to the opposite. Comparatively, this rap sh*t is a walk in the park.