Whilst she isn’t a member of Griselda’s founding trio of Westside Gunn, Benny the Butcher, and Conway the Machine, Armani Caesar is about as close as you can get to your typical Griselda signee. A thirteen-year veteran after signing with the late DJ Shay in 2009, the Buffalo native has had her fair share of time in obscurity before joining as Griselda’s ‘First Lady’ in 2019. And in a year in which GxFR has seen projects from nearly all members, Caesar’s project may well be the best release of the year, barring perhaps Conway’s God Don’t Make Mistakes.
The first thing that stands out is the sheer breadth of sounds Caesar experiments with. Most Griselda listeners are accustomed to the label’s grimy, underground 90s New York sound on nearly all their projects. Still, Caesar attempts to break free from these boundaries on many tracks whilst flourishing on the more classic Griselda instrumentals.
Executively produced by Westside Gunn, his influence is evident on several tracks, not least in the opening track ‘Paula Deen’ in which he delivers a concise, typically-braggadocious verse. However, he doesn’t overstay his welcome, with his only other appearance coming at the end of ‘Survival of the Littest.’ Gunn is often most effective when he is not rapping, acting more as a Buffalo P Diddy, overseeing the album’s creation, as is the case on The Liz 2.
‘Mel Gibson’ sounds like it could have come straight from a Mach-Hommy/Westside Gunn crossover, allowing Armani to demonstrate her ability over the more hard-hitting boom-bap instrumentals. Lead single ‘Hunnit Dollar Hiccup’ is an instant Griselda classic, as labelmates Benny the Butcher and Stove God Cooks join forces with Caesar to create another underground banger, proving that Armani can more than hang with Griselda’s best.
Outside West’s influence, Armani Caesar branches into several other genres. Tracks’ Meth & Mary’ and ‘Queen City’ are textbook pop-rap bangers, both of which could come straight from a Megan Thee Stallion record – if Megan had a much better pen and could sing.
And who knew Armani Caesar could sing so well? ‘First Wives Club’ has hints of RnB over a slow, jazzy instrumental, with Caesar flaunting her success and independence as an artist and woman; the chorus ‘you don’t own me… I’m not your bitch,’ is just as catchy as it is empowering.
Armani even succeeds in blending her sounds. El Puro has all the makings of a quality radio hit and could get even the most hardcore Griselda listener singing that he needs a ‘real ass bitch’. Yet the track also features Conway the Machine, who has never sounded so good over a luscious pop-rap instrumental with near-to-no elements of boom-bap in it. The song plays like a coronation, not just of the album, but of Griselda records, whose rise to the forefront of hip-hop has been nothing short of outstanding, and the year they have had is a testament to that.
Armani Caesar has taken her sound from The Liz Tape and ran with it. Griselda may still be mainly recognised for the trio of West, Benny and Conway, but Armani Caesar is slowly but surely making her name known. Griselda diehards will be content with the stream of 90s east coast sounds they are accustomed to hearing from the collective, but the ‘Fashion Rebels’ can often get too caught up in hip-hop history. In this sense, Caesar’s presence makes her invaluable. She thrives over vintage beats but is willing to experiment with new sounds. She brings modernity to the label (which is never a bad thing), and it just so happens that she’s very good at it.