Conway the Machine and his Griselda brethren, Westside Gunn and Benny the Butcher, found fame by spending years chipping away at a signature sound: vicious coke raps laid over greyscale, endless-winter boom bap. As their audience expanded, so too did the rappers’ taste for experimentation. Gunn stripped his music to its simplest form, sanding the drums off hazy loops to create a warped gangster psychedelia. Benny, aiming to expand to a more mainstream audience, took a different tack, embracing a clean, early ‘00s jigginess that ultimately divided his fanbase.
Conway didn’t settle on any one direction. Instead, he’s spent the past few years trying his hand at whatever style he finds intriguing, broadening the musical vocabulary at his disposal. LPs La Maquina and God Don’t Make Mistakes split the difference between Atlanta-inspired trap music and a glossy Roc-A-Fella aesthetic, while side projects with producers like Big Ghost Ltd. and The Alchemist leaned into the bloodshot griminess with which he’d made his name. Palermo, a collaboration with German producer Wun Two, is another interesting pivot. Wun Two’s beats have a slow metabolism, making ample use of wow-and-flutter tape effects and crisp drums that sound like they were tracked in a coffin. It’s some of the weirdest, most beguiling production Conway’s ever rapped on, and he responds by exploring the boundaries of form and arrangement.
On “Carduni,” the first proper cut, Conway raps for a solid minute before moving into a hook—except the hook never really materializes. Instead, he repeats “you know what it is” every four bars for the remainder of the song, occasionally sprinkling in some vague shit talk. The effect is mesmerizing: Wun Two’s ominous, detuned beat plays for another two minutes, and Conway’s repeated phrase grows more threatening each time. Over the breezy, disintegrating loop Wun Two provides for “Bianca,” Conway pulls a verse completely apart. He skips every other bar, leaving a vast amount of negative space. Throughout the tape, Conway sounds hypnotized by the rippling soundscapes behind him, holding himself back more than usual to let the grooves breathe.
“Gaspare” is probably the most conventional song on the project. It sounds like a classic Griselda jam, wrapping a wilting sample around trudging drums. Conway tears into the track, effortlessly spouting ferocious lines like “I got a drug lord’s IQ and a jacker’s acumen.” Drumwork signee Goosebytheway joins for the hook and an equally ruthless verse. It’s a tightly wound, expertly crafted piece of rap music. That it comes at the end of a tape full of wild structural experiments reinforces the success of Palermo—nothing feels out of place. If anything, it’s one of Conway’s most exciting projects, proving that he’s not keen to rest on his laurels, showcasing his appetite to push himself, and paving the way from good rapper to legacy artist.