As integral and necessary as music is in my life, my writing world holds it more on the periphery. I don’t need it to relax, or focus, per se. Music holds me when I’m cleaning, or driving, cooking or organizing. When I’m writing, it’s mostly a distraction (especially since I like to read my words back to myself aloud and music gets in the way). Having said that, I have found that music sometimes speaks to what I’m feeling when I’m writing, or what I’m feeling like as a writer, and the parallels make me want to get the words out. It’s an interesting way to cure a blockage, music — but I’ll take it. Now, I wrote something previously about Skyzoo’s debut album diary entry “Dear Whoever”, and how his frustration with his waning faith in his rhyme book spoke to the same issues I was having with my laptop at the time. Today, we’re on a bit of a brighter note. Today’s musical influence is La Maquina, spanish for “The Machine,” and the latest album from Conway, aptly nicknamed, The Machine. I was blasting the album all last week as I worked toward moving into my new place, and didn’t write a single word. But writing is all it made me think about.
Conway is probably best described as the foundation of Griselda, the hip-hop crew (and record label) composed of him, his brother (and the crew’s founder) Westside Gunn, and their cousin, Benny the Butcher, along with Daringer, their in-house producer. Griselda is known for their biting, edgy, rough rhymes about their former lives in the drug game and how they use those tactics to navigate the industry they’re in now. Benny has stepped into the spotlight a bit more, but West and Conway have been around a long time, collaborating on mixtapes and other collective projects. Either way, the three bring the cold calculation of Push’s coke raps, and more than a dash of the grimy reminiscent of The Lox, and that certain Buffalo attitude and the result is something all their own. But back to Conway.
What I mean by foundation is the heavy bottom that holds it steady. The anchor. The Machine is the base — and his rhymes clearly reflect that. His lyrical prowess has been showing for years, but none more so (to me) than in this latest album. On La Maquina, he spread his wings even further than before, and lets you see that the span is far reaching — he can touch you no matter where you are. Any rhyming pattern, he can best it. Any cadence, he can match it. Any beat, he can slide effortlessly and ride it til the wheels fall off. The Machine… is a machine. And on this album, he shows you what he’s made of. And he makes me think of what I’m made of. As a writer, a storyteller. Do I spin words as well as Conway? I’m finally starting to believe that maybe I do.
As a writer of fiction (mostly), I sometimes get the feeling that my words don’t carry as much weight. Churning out made up worlds and the fake people that inhabit them make you wonder how your stories stand up. How much impact you have. Am I making the world better? I wonder about that all the time. Mostly because I’m surrounded by writers who I know are certainly making the world better. They break down the locked doors of history to tell the truth about hip-hop, environmental racism, the civil rights movement, motherhood, labor, fashion, abolition, and the struggle to find your place in the world. I know some of the GREATEST writers in the world. And that’s not hyperbole. If you knew who I knew, you’d agree. But anyway, I push myself to tell stories that matter as much as theirs. But I often wonder if I’m succeeding. They praise me to the skies. You know how trippy it is to have the world’s greatest pen holders tell you how good you are? It’s trippy. But they do. They believe it. It’s taking me a while. But strangely enough, this Conway album is helping me.
La Maquina starts off with “Bruiser Brody,” a record so typically Griselda that I was immediately comfortable. For some reason, him going so familiar with the first track lulled me. But by the time you get to “6:30 Tip-Off,” you realize that something is different. But it’s still good. Better than good. And it continues. He went with bigger production than ever on this album, but in a different way — sweeping strings, sped up chorus samples reminiscent of choirs shouting backup, and lots of piano, peeling back some of the signature bass common to Griselda records, but keeping the gun noises. After all, it is Conway. And as soon as I heard “THE CANNON,” it felt like home (Don Cannon is a fellow Philadelphian, lol). But it wasn’t just that. Conway spoke as highly of himself as he possibly could on this album. On every track, he let you know you weren’t better than him, even if you were rapping right next to him. And he wasn’t wrong. No one outshone him, his bottom heavy lyrics carrying every track, even on songs like “Grace,” where you wouldn’t think the production would even fit him. The Machine let you know he’s the best at this. And I was convinced.
Conway’s wing span made me think of how I’ve spread my own wings in this writing thing. I’m not as famous as my friends, nor do I have a “this was my only dream and I’ll die to make it come true,” writer origin story. But I am pretty damn good at this. I have four short story collections in print, along with a romance novel, a blog, a newsletter, and a growing handful of places you can see my work. I’ve expanded myself in every way possible, and the ideas just keep coming. I have plans ahead. Like Conway, I’m into bigger production than ever, determined not to be outshone, ready to convince the world I’m the best at this. Any topic, I can defeat it. Any cadence, I can match it. Any prompt, I can destroy it. Genre to genre? I can slide effortlessly. I’m a machine. A writing machine. In the last line of 6:30 Tip-Off, Conway says,
“They say West is the brains behind it, and Benny is the star. Well let’s not act like The Machine ain’t the silliest with the bars. Stop playing with me.”
It’s the best line on the album. And it spoke to me so clearly. I’m not an award winner (yet), but I don’t need to be a star to show people how good I am. I just need to be an anchor.