Heem: From the Cradle to the Game

Westside Gunn’s activities as a rapper, A&R, fashionista, and wrestling fan are well-documented, but within the Griselda family, Conway the Machine and Benny the Butcher have quietly been putting in work. Since its founding in 2016, Benny’s Black Soprano Family label has ballooned into a seven-man unit. The collective’s standout has always been Buffalo rapper Heem, a straightforward storyteller with a nimble and commanding voice. He’s more of a parallel to artists like Boldy James or Styles P than Benny: a street soldier with eyes in the back of his head, preoccupied with stark details that put you in the thick of the action.

His second album From the Cradle to the Game works from some of the oldest templates in rap history: rags to riches, make momma proud, put on for the homies, never forget where you came from. Heem spent his youth in one of Buffalo’s roughest areas, and every song on From the Cradle looks back at grisly moments from his teenage years. Take opener “Reasonable Doubt,” where he reflects on a crime that almost ended his career before it began, or “Cocaine County” which details his experience at the mixing bowl with unnerving specificity, from the sound the fork makes to the flip phones used to make the deal. “I’m the one who went to war, you never shot nothin’/BSF stand for: ‘you’d better stop frontin’,” he raps on the thumping “Radio Raheem, judging anyone who’d fake hardship for attention. Heem can be a guarded and tough presence, but any time spent above ground is a blessing; he seems grateful for the possibility of one day being able to swap “crack money for some real estate and businesses.”

Some songs—like the Tyrie Hames-produced “Picture Me Rollin” and the Marc Spano-produced “Same Ole G”—fall into bland Roc-A-Fella worship, while others deploy the same crunchy mid-tempo stomp that you hear from most Griselda affiliates. Specific flourishes keep the album from lulling: Take the mandolin strings and vocal sample Hames adds to “Mamie Lee” or the soulful minimalism of Jansport J’s work on “Long Way Home,” both of which suit Heem’s traditionalist style. 

What Heem brings to the table, and what From the Cradle excels at more than anything, is highlighting the conflicting emotions he’s felt while on the road from nothing to something. He seamlessly shifts between remorseless and wounded, hard-nosed and contemplative, and the cracks in his voice naturally emphasize his struggles. Having money, jewelry, and drop-tops is all well and good, but is it worth the sleepless nights and memories of lost friends he describes on “Tears of Blood”? The more he leans into this dichotomy, the more potent his music becomes. Even at his most familiar, it’s easy to see why Heem has become the Black Soprano Family’s right-hand man.