Those who refuse to engage with hip-hop like to complain the genre is simply bragging about drug dealing and shooting people. A reasonable response might be to reference rappers like Kendrick Lamar or Aesop Rock, who write substantive lyrics about a variety of topics. Alternatively, you could respond that a lot of people do rap mostly about selling drugs, and some of them are really, really good at it.
Benny the Butcher, an underground rapper best known as one third of the Griselda trio, makes a strong case for his inclusion among the ranks of the best unapologetic crack dealers turned rappers in his new album Tana Talk 4. Benny reached new heights of popularity in 2018 and has not let his newfound success slow him down: this is his fifth project in just two years. He said in an interview with Apple Music that this album represents him “taking over the world.”
“Johnny P’s Caddy,” featuring J. Cole, starts the album on an extremely strong note. The drum beat in the background sounds hard and confident like Benny, and loops a beautiful and fitting vocal sample. As on most tracks, Benny’s rhymes are smooth and dense, while seamlessly flowing around different topics to make them all part of a bigger picture. He raps with an air of confidence that commands respect while demonstrating an inner confidence that he does not need recognition to know he is great.
J. Cole delivers a similarly dense, dramatic, and beautiful verse in which he claims that rappers who rely on bars about guns and drugs are all lying, while he is uniquely honest about his relatively boring past. Though the verse is amazing in a vacuum, it is complicated by its context; Benny (along with every other featured artist) raps in almost every song about his supposedly real past as a serious crack dealer.
A defining feature of Griselda is their tendency to rap with attitudes, styles, and beats reminiscent of the 90s. Benny proudly displays this influence in “10 More Commandments,” a sequel to the Notorious B.I.G.’s “10 Crack Commandments,” in which he raps 10 pieces of advice to less knowledgeable crack dealers. Though Benny stylistically borrows from golden era masters, he brings denser rhymes, natural-sounding flows, and the general technical skill that had yet to be achieved by any of that time period’s biggest rappers.
While Biggie is forever a legend, listening back to his song after hearing Benny’s almost feels like reading a college freshman’s book report after reading a graduate student’s thesis paper. Benny ends on a positive note, with his final advice being to stop selling crack as soon as possible. The ending is unfortunately weak, and Diddy’s non-rhyming, rhythmless speech outro just felt low-effort.
“Tyson vs. Ali,” featuring fellow Griselda member Conway the Machine, is another highlight which analogizes the comparisons between the two rappers to comparisons between all-time boxing greats Mike Tyson and Muhammad Ali. Benny and Conways regard both debates as folly, saying there is no need to “compare the legends to the legends, the icons to the greats,” when both rappers are on the same team and celebrate each other’s victories. Though to say this contradicts the song’s message, Benny had the more impressive verse, staying on topic and always having one idea flow into the next, while Conway delivers some strong, but relatively generic bars about his drug dealing and wealth. The beat is fittingly intense, graceful, and magical.
Tana Talk 4 has no skips. On “Uncle Bun,” Benny and his long-time collaborator 38 Spesh display great chemistry as they build on each other’s coke bars while passing the mic back and forth like a cypher. I especially love the confident attitude filling the verses and voices of Benny and Boldy James, who both sound laid-back as they sentimentally express their satisfaction with the results of their struggles regardless of their recognition in “Weekends in the Perry’s.” Benny raps with a more intense, passionate, and aggressive form of confidence and drive on tracks like “Back 2x,” “Billy Joe,” and “Thowy’s Revenge,” whose beats all do a phenomenal job at getting the listener in the perfect mental state to understand the feelings behind the lyrics. It was no surprise to see that every song was produced either by Daringer or The Alchemist, who consistently push the boundaries of creativity and quality in their field.
Though far from disappointing, the album has its flaws. While some fans love the intros, listening to Benny hype himself up for 15 seconds at the start of each track can get monotonous when listening to the album track by track. Some choruses drag on a bit too long, and some tracks on the back half blend together. Benny is a skilled writer, though his superficial lyrics which require no careful listening act as a double-edged sword. That being said, it is hard to complain when someone releases a hard-hitting, well-produced series of 12 great songs.