And Then You Pray for Me is positioned as a sequel to 2020’s Pray for Paris, which marked a high point for modern rap’s high-fashion pretensions. Unfortunately, times have changed since the glory years of Virgil Abloh (RIP) and Ye. Westside Gunn is very aware of a decline in fervor surrounding his Griselda brand. He complains on “Babylon Bis,” “It seems like everybody hate West lately.” He invites AA Rashid and Keisha Plum to pointedly remind us that this is a genius at work. The former proclaims on “Flygod Did, “You are now listening to an audible, finely crafted garment.” Stove God Cooks is less subtle as he harmonizes on “House of Glory,” “Broke nigga, why you mad?” At least Griselda still has Daupe! customers. Part of the reason why folks have grown weary of his products is that, after dozens of mixtapes and albums, nearly all modeled after the grimy new golden era template he unveiled with 2016’s Flygod, he seems to have little new to say. Lyrically, Westside remains the type of dude that catcalls on “Chloe,” “C’mere, bitch! Let me change your life!” A subsequent confession that “You’re the prettiest when I nut on you bitch” illustrates a worldview that feels quite narrow despite his well-chronicled lust for Rick Owens shoes and Balenciaga coats. And Then You Pray for Me makes a more convincing argument for Westside Gunn’s compositional abilities. By toggling between “drumless” boom-bap and the kind of punch-drunk trap beats that once flourished on DatPiff, he retains his ability to surprise the listener as DJ Holiday, Trap-a-Holics, and DJ Drama help suffuse the album in mid-Aughts Southern thug nostalgia. (“Return of the boom-bap with two million on the wrist!” yells Drama on “Suicide in Selfridges.”) The machinations are enough to sustain another hour of Griselda street heroics, and a handful of legitimate dazzlers like “Kitchen Lights” stand out. The lengthy guest list includes Travis Scott, JID (who delivers a strong verse on “Mamas Prime Time”), Giggs, Ty Dolla $ign, Rick Ross, EST Gee, Denzel Curry, and Boldy James. Longtime fam Benny the Butcher and Conway the Machine, and Griselda artists Estee Nack and Rome Streetz drop in as well. In a nice touch, Westside Gunn turns over the closing title track to rising rap singer KayCyy. The production team includes Daringer, Conductor Williams, Tay Keith, Miguel the Plug and, in a high-profile appearance, the RZA on “House of Glory.” And Then You Pray for Me is distributed by EMPIRE.
Brooklyn rapper Michael “MIKE” Bonema is a prolific performer — this is his second 2023 project following Faith Is a Rock, a collaboration with Wiki and The Alchemist highlighted by the standout single “Mayors a Cop.” His tics have grown familiar, from his muddy, baritone flow and viscous diction to self-produced lo-fi loops, making it difficult to differentiate between his sundry projects. Burning Desire has a handful of WTF moments that abruptly shift the usual gears, particularly “African Sex Freak Fantasy,” a number produced by North Carolina musician Gawd that’s larded with distorted bass. Mostly, though, MIKE sticks to a well-established formula. Some of his beats are quite nice and buttery, like when he slows-and-chops Mary J. Blige’s “Real Love” on “Real Love,” and ends “They Don’t Stop in the Rain” with the Notorious B.I.G.’s chorus on “Crush on You.” His raps have a punched-in quality, a volley of bars that usually last around a minute or so, followed by a refrain to tie them together. (He compares his style to “a Sistine” on “Sixteens.”) The technique, so common among rappers in the 2020s, yields some standout lines, like when he raps, “I couldn’t cope with my feelings like Romeo” on “Snake Charm,” which is produced by Laron. Near the final third of Burning Desire, MIKE invites Lila Ramani of Brooklyn band Crumb to sing solo on “Should Be!” The haunting number feels like a palate cleanser and leads to one of the album’s strongest cuts, “What You Say You Are.” As MIKE raps, “I’m Michael Myers with the dreads,” he invokes the best aspects of his persona: A hungry striver full of Brooklyn swagger, trembling from the city’s elements and overeager to share his troubles. Not coincidentally, “What You Say You Are” lasts over three minutes and feels like a hearty dish instead of the minute-long nibbles that define so much of Burning Desire. The guests include Earl Sweatshirt and Larry June — both of whom deliver solid cameos — as well as British musicians Klein, Venna, and Mark William Lewis; experimental vocalist Liv.e, rappers Niontay and El Cousteau, and others. The evocative album art was illustrated by Ghanaian movie-poster veteran D.A. Jasper. MIKE released Burning Desire on his 10k label. * (Recommended)