Shawny Binladen: WiCKMAN STiCKMAN

New York drill has gone through an astounding number of mutations in the last nine years. Technically, it’s a third-generation copy of a subgenre that already had two distinct homebases: the warbling 808s of the UK’s AXL Beats and the haunted, concrete-hard menace of Chicago drill, which was first popularized by Lil DurkG Herbo, and Chief Keef. The Brooklyn iteration spawned firecrackers like Bobby Shmurda’s 2014 track “Hot Nigga,” as well as flex anthems, like all of the songs that Pop Smoke dropped in 2019. A then-lagging New York rap scene put its weight behind these two budding icons, who were either locked away in their prime or tragically murdered.

Instead of fizzling out after the death of Pop Smoke, even more East Coast offshoots emerged: Producers in Jersey and the Bronx, like Great John and Cash Cobain, began incorporating samples into their drill beats, while others in Jersey and Philly created a hybrid of club and drill by ratcheting up the tempo to ankle-shredding BPMs. The regional subgenre has expanded impressively, so much so that the lurching tension of Shmurda and Rowdy Rebel’s “Computers” and the pepped-up horniness of Cobain and Chow Lee’s “Vacant” can exist within the same rich spectrum.    

Queens rapper Shawny Binladen, the self-proclaimed king of sample drill, is most comfortable in the middle of that binary. His ear leans toward busy, even chaotic beats, ones that leverage samples and drums in the way an amateur mixologist might use a touchscreen Coke machine. But within the chaos, his voice is chill, launching threats, jokes, and come-ons with an unnerving insouciance. Who else could float over chipmunk soul and what sounds like Clams Casino leftovers blaring through a busted computer speaker on the same album? WiCKMAN STiCKMAN tinkers slightly with the intoxicating formula he’s been savoring since 2020. It sounds a touch more expensive—and lacks noticeable samples compared to his earlier work—but it is no less raw.

Shawny’s breathy delivery keeps the songs as energetic as the beats do. Though he rarely rises above a whisper, its rasp, combined with punched-in vocals that often drag a hair behind or skip a step ahead of the beat, make the songs stretchy and unpredictable. His voice billows through the dense bed of drums and synths on “The Reaper,” or floats across “Larry Lobster” while he rants like a chatty supervillain. On the clubby “Wick Jr.,” he uses his choppy flow to hop from topic to topic; he laments his opps’ mothers’ need to start a GoFundMe, then claims he’ll have his son smoking on opp pack when he turns 20. Most drill artists are either manic or stoic in both form and content, but Shawny’s indifference gives his animated boasts a devilish edge—fitting for a man who named himself after a notorious war criminal.     

He’s not the most thoughtful lyricist in the world—every song features some combination of antagonizing rivals, repping his Grinchset crew, having sex in every position imaginable, and the occasional homophobic slur. But details bring the bleakness of his surroundings into focus. There’s a moment on “TLC” where Shawny reckons with the roughness of his twisted city: “All you see is RIPs, white tees, and black hats/Had to run it up, now that wocky in my backpack.” They’re only glimpses of the conditions that force Black boys into this image of manhood, but Shawny is only as callous as the environment that raised him. Flows, punchlines, and grim scene-setting give WiCKMAN an episodic feel. It’s like returning to a comfort series after abandoning it for a few seasons: These are the same stories told in different ways, but they rarely get old.

There aren’t any on-the-nose Cash Cobain-style sample flips to be found here, but other longtime collaborators, like Natt Carlos, Chubby El Hefe, and several others, are responsible for the booming grayscale beats that Shawny rips through. Not to say there aren’t any samples at all: Choirs, sirens, and horns rub against the project’s bubbling low end. “Makman” features a twinkling guitar sample that could’ve been pulled from a spaghetti Western. “Hate Datt” is anchored by club drums and synths that gleam like comets. Even the more standard takes on drill have neat little flourishes, like the distorted violin sample at the heart of “The Reaper,” or the piano keys on “On God.” These are among the most refined beats Shawny’s ever rapped over, and he wastes no time finding his place in them.

Any indication that New York drill was just a fad has gone out the window, much like the reputation of New York mayor—and self-appointed enemy of drill—Eric Adams. Alongside Griselda’s chunky revivalism or the warped experiments of the underground scene, drill’s thumping urgency is just one of the multifaceted sounds of modern Gotham. Shawny Binladen has staked his claim as a drill innovator, and while WiCKMAN STiCKMAN isn’t quite as outlandish as last year’s Wick the Wizard or 2020’s Merry Wickmas, it’s still a wild ride through the troubled and creative mind of one of drill’s finest.