In 2019, DJBooth published an article establishing every member of Buffalo rap clique Griselda as the best member of Griselda. Even still, Conway The Machine, born Demond Price, and his sharp tongue catches the ear differently. Slant rhymes are his weapon of choice, an effective way to zig-zag through stories of pain and triumph.
“I’ve lived a helluva life, I’m impaling a knife / Inside a competitor just to sever and slice,” Conways raps on Westside Gunn’s 2018 song “Brutus,” a perfect example of the rapper in his most brutal form. Conway’s gruff voice and forced snarl—the result of Bell’s palsy, which paralyzed half of his face after a gunshot to the back of the head in 2012—help bolster a persona draped in Cuban links and gunsmoke. Deeper cuts from his catalog pull the curtain back, revealing a man wading through regret and paranoia.
Take “The Cow,” a standout record off Westside Gunn’s 2016 mixtape, Hitler Wears Hermes 4. “Roll the Swisher, get high / Free the homies behind the wall, free my niggas inside / All them niggas that died,” Conway says through clenched teeth. His verse is an abridged autobiography highlighting moments with brothers in arms before they’re locked away (“You don’t owe me shit, just put the city on the map”) and rap achievements to puff out your chest (“Buffalo nigga, but did song with Kool G, tho”). Conway lets his guard down, inviting listeners into his inner monologue for the first time.
A moment like the one found on “The Cow” is rare in Conway’s discography. If Benny The Butcher is Griselda’s answer to New Jack City’s Nino Brown, brash and forceful as a dookie chain to the face, then Conway, at his best, is the cocaine dealer Luis “Lulu” Lujano from Paid In Full, a tactician flexing from the shadows. Lulu, portrayed by Esai Morales, rarely steps outside of his fully furnished apartment during the film, yet he sports the nicest clothes and totes the purest cocaine in the neighborhood. Through experience and a tactical eye, he’s earned the rights of a deadly shadow operative, visible only when he chooses to be. Sound like anyone familiar?
On Monday, March 30, Conway and legendary California producer The Alchemist released a seven-track EP, entitled LULU. Conway isn’t so much reserved on the microphone as he is impersonal; more often than not, he lets his braggadocio do the heavy lifting. On LULU, one of Conway’s great strengths lies in his comfortability to bridge the gap between Machine and Demond Price.
“The Contract” opens with a bold statement:
“Let’s toast to my enemies, No, let’s toast to my injuries / Turn my negative to positive, I don’t need no sympathy / I’m the GOAT til infinity, I wrote with intensity / Plus my potent delivery; I just hope they remember me.” –Conway The Machine, “The Contract”
There are no crocodile tears shed in Conway’s world. He doesn’t want a Bell’s palsy participation trophy; he wants the respect owed to a recording artist confident enough to call themselves The Machine. As “The Contract” continues, Conway airs out a fairweather friend who “got mad at me and ran to the internet” and others on the sidelines waiting for his downfall: “If I ever go broke again, bet they won’t bring a cent to me.”
In what amounts to saying “success is the best revenge,” Conway is the closest to humble he’s ever been on record. “The Contract” is evidence he’s grown more measured with time. Conway treats his injuries and paranoia as constants. They’re not his crosses to bear; they’re fueling his fire.
Conway dots LULU with these revealing moments. The smell of piss attached to bricks of coke reminds the rapper of the soiled mattress he slept on as a child (“Shoot Sideways”). On the second verse on “Gold BBS’s,” he mentions having to teach his son about how guns work. On “Calvin,” a standout song near the project’s end, Conway offers another piece of his life’s puzzle:
“I’m from the bottom, went straight to the top / I’m in the hood, I’m still on my block / I know some shooters that run in your spot / Hit you with a shot; I’ve seen it a lot.” –Conway The Machine, “Calvin”
Conway’s past is filled with stories of prisoners in Cartier glasses and lit candles bringing peace to a room where a piano’s worth of KI’s have just been moved. A passage in the second verse of “Calvin” gives us a further glimpse into the man he was before the fame:
“Dropped out of school, never made it to college / I got in the game and I made a few commas / I put on for the city; I did it for Chelo, I made him a promise / I wasn’t stopping; this was before any deal, I was still selling narcotics.” –Conway The Machine, “Calvin”
The ethos of “The Cow” courses through the autobiography of “Calvin.” When Conway threatens to “have niggas next to you aiming a TEC at you / shootin’ at you right in front of your momma,” the history between he and his shooters is palpable. The door to his life has opened a bit more, and we can smell the residue of life on the edge. These details give Conway’s experience further dimension across the project. Learning more about the man who was bumping “Killa Cam, Purple Haze while we servin’ yay” (“14 KI’s”) grounds Conway as much on wax as it does in real life.
Conway, of course, hasn’t abandoned his trademark gully rap. The mean streak kicked up by last year’s grisly WWCD continues over Alchemist’s prime cuts of thudding boom bap. Conway barrels through opening song “14 KI’s” toting a MAC-10 inside his Burberry trench coat. There are primo sports references (“My lil’ shooter like [Allen Iverson], but he been missin’ practice” from “Shoot Sideways”) and, as to be expected, plenty of allusions to Paid In Full (“I feel like Rico when he got at Mitch” from “14 KI’s”). Alchemist’s beats range from rigid to flowing, and Conway channels the variety into a focus strong enough to give Boldy James’ The Price of Tea In China a run for its money.
As amazing as it is to hear Conway gnash on the mic like the great white shark on LULU’s cover, we already know not to fuck with The Machine. A growing maturity and his willingness to let us into his world, into his past, helps LULU shine the brightest. With every new project, Conway learns to reflect on his thoughts and his past a little more, offering chances to see the world through his eyes. Like Lulu Lujano before him, Conway is learning to embrace the shadows and strike in ways we least expect.