On paper, the pairing of Benny the Butcher’s Black Soprano Family with DJ Drama seems like a curious proposition. As part of Griselda, Benny belongs to a new generation of artists dedicated to revitalizing the sound and approach of grimy mid ‘90s East Coast hip-hop; Drama, on the other hand, is best known for his early ‘00s mixtape series Gangsta Grillz, which featured artists like T.I. and Lil Wayne and which helped popularize the trap sound that eventually supplanted the Golden Era. So one of the biggest surprises about Black Soprano Family is hearing just how well the two work together: Drama enlists producers who supply every song with booming, cinematic synth-strings, and Benny’s crew attacks every line with gusto.
As the name of the crew implies, these are fantasy crime narratives in the grand tradition of The Infamous and Cuban Linx. But where those two albums had a kind of steely grimness, Black Soprano Family runs on pure, exhilarating bravado. On the magnificently tense “Grams in the Water,” a creeping bassline and twinkling minor-key organ provide a moody backdrop for a series of wry boasts (Benny gets the best one with, “I put coke-white seats inside a lime-green Tesla”). “Love With the Streets” is even better—a dusting of Spanish guitar, a soaring female vocal loop, and a rigid beat over which Soprano member Heem drops dizzying stacks of syllables: “I’m a rare breed/ Not the type that you hand feed/ Shots from the 40 cal will make ‘em stampede/ My hand squeeze? First thing you see is head bleed/ Damn! Gotta clear the scene/ That boy gonna need a med team.” In fact, if Black Soprano has a breakout star, it’s Heem, a relative newcomer who pairs marksman-like lyricism with a kind of raw physicality for bars that pack a wallop while also making the mind reel. That quality is on dazzling display again on “Valarie,” a solo feature on which Heem spins out a story that unflinchingly exposes the crime fantasy’s darker underbelly: “Summertime, the neighborhood smells like gunsmoke/ Every time that flip phone rings, somebody wants coke/ dead broke, so the streets was my last hope/ …The pain deep, lost homies on those same streets/ N—s played pickup games, now they’re six feet/ The streets cold, n—s fucking up the G code/ So I went and bought more hammers than Home Depot.”
Longtime fans of both Benny and Drama, fear not; beloved catchphrases—”Gangsta Griz-ills!” “The Butcher’s coming!”—still get plenty of airing. But what makes Black Soprano Family worth the price of admission is the vitality of the new voices in Benny’s crew, and for the proof of Drama’s continued savvy as a selector. Clocking in at a lean 26 minutes, Black Soprano Family is half the length of the average peak TV crime drama; in that time, though, it delivers three times the punch.