Freddie Gibbs has lately been making a great case for becoming my new underground hero. Even though I didn’t love his Lord Giveth, Lord Taketh Away mixtape with Statik Selektah, it was a great reintroduction to him, and it proved to me that he could really rap and pick great beats. Pinata, which is entirely produced by Madlib, sounds even better than Lord Giveth‘s best moments, likely because much more time was spent making this album than that mixtape.
I also think that Freddie’s rhymes mesh much better with Madlib’s smooth, often soul-filled, slightly off-kilter production than they do with Statik Selektah’s much more straightforward boom-bap. Plus I just like Madlib better. Anyway, the Beat Konducta deserves a special commendation for all these lovely beats that he provided. Scarface, with its intermittent vocal samples and sound effects, reminds me of Dilla’s Donuts style but its prominent and hard drums keep it grounded better than that instrumental album. Songs like High, Broken, and Knicks are the best uses of soul samples that I’ve heard in years, while Thuggin sounds like an update of Wu-Tang’s sound circa Wu-Tang Forever. One last beat that must be mentioned is Pinata, which uses the same sample as The Notorious B.I.G.’s Biggie (off the posthumous Born Again album.) The sample is used in a way that is very similar to the Biggie song, but is just different enough that this new song doesn’t feel obsolete.
Freddie deserves at least equal credit for picking these instrumentals, and for using them so well. His lyricism and quick-paced flow are stronger than when I last heard him, but what’s especially interesting is that he doesn’t always present himself as a larger-than-life figure. Where many gangsta rappers only project a super-heroic image, Gibbs has that gangsta persona while still exhibiting a sense of reality and humility that I really appreciate. On Broken he mentions lying to his grandmother about quitting the criminal lifestyle and describes his dad who was a crooked police officer. These tales could have been shallow boasts if told by someone else, somewhere else. But, on Madlib’s very somber instrumental that includes a sample of a singer apologetically wailing, and with Freddie talking in straightforward rhymes with a calm voice, they come across as genuine embarrassments.
On another story song, Deeper, Freddie uses Madlib’s much less sad and subdued but still soulful beat to tell the story of a failed relationship. While he’s in jail for selling drugs, his girlfriend develops a relationship with a classmate (she’s in college) and gets pregnant. Graduation then has her develop a stuck-up attitude towards people like Gibbs who aren’t up to her now educated standards. This all hurts Gibbs deeply (pun intended,) shown with sections like this one:
I hope you feel the pain I’m feelin when you hear this song
don’t want a nigga that’s gon’ slang shit up in ya home
but you ran off and got engaged, man that shit was wrong
all to a nigga that ain’t got nothin that I ain’t got
only difference is he trynna be a fuckin astronaut
Gibbs’ envious hatred is clearly visible, and he shows that he is aware that his own sadness is fueling it. Hiding sadness behind anger is an extremely plausible reaction for a man, and conveying such complex emotion is what makes this song, and Gibbs, so special. This level of reality is not what I expect from gangsta rap, especially in a song about the opposite sex.
While in jail Gibbs says “maybe you’s a stank hoe, maybe that’s a bit mean/ maybe you grew up and I’m still livin like I’m 16,” showing a very realistic ambivalence about who’s right and who’s wrong in this situation. Far from hating her, Gibbs loves her enough to not hurt her new man after his release from jail, even though he’d love to. He just hates how things turned out, because he hates how it all makes him feel. Even at the end of the song, after rejecting her attempts to get back together, Gibbs expresses pity for the new man, “when he find out the baby ain’t his, that cut a nigga deep.”
All of this depth is on top of the numerous great but less meaningful songs like Thuggin and the posse-cut, Pinata. So far Meechie Darko’s unorthodox delivery makes his verse the most memorable of the 7 on that song, but one of the others verses from what seems to be many of hip-hop’s best new and newish rappers may eventually change my mind. Like Pinata, Gibbs’s featured rapper picks are great choices, especially Danny Brown on High and Scarface on Broken. Ab-Soul, as usual, was terrible on Lakers, and there are a few other songs that I don’t like, but even those aren’t very bad, just not so good.
Verdict: Freddie, with Madlib’s varied yet uniformly interesting beats, again proves that the best hip-hop is made in the underground, and that gangsta rappers can be much more than macho cliches. Like one of my other underground heroes, Sean Price, his knack for gangsta realism puts him leaps and bounds above other rappers. Pinata will likely be one of 2014’s best.