By CALVIN PATTEN
“‘Cause mothafucka, I’m thuggin’ / Selling you the science of the street rap,” Freddie Gibbs quips on “Thuggin.” He is underselling himself, though — while Freddie is certainly best known for his grimy, street raised tales of drugs, violence and debauchery, his music frequently transcends the standard limitations of a subgenre that exists simultaneously as a mark of legitimacy and a sad, ironic joke. Instead, Freddie, in collaboration with the esteemed producer Madlib, has released an album, Piñata, that more ambitiously can claim to sell the science of great hip hop.
The combination of Freddie Gibbs and Madlib is kind of an oddball pairing. In the best ways, Madlib can be all over the place as a producer, utilizing everything from jazz to electronic along with the most random samples in his beats. Freddie however, has traditionally utilized more conventional, street-inspired production. His best previous project was the DJ Drama-produced Baby Faced Killer, which found Freddie going ballistic over beats similar to those frequented by Rick Ross, Young Jeezy and Meek Mill. On Piñata, however, Freddie demonstrates a previously undemonstrated versatility, his rapid fire verses filling in the nooks and crannies of each of Madlib’s soulfilled gifts. Freddie does not back down, his heavy, gravelly voice providing its own instrumentation in wonderful stark contrast to the playful beat.
Despite the change in production, Freddie’s subject matter stays the course. Never one to seek out radio play, Piñata finds Gibbs detailing as explicitly as ever the struggles and realities of the streets. Lying somewhere between the euphoric gangbanging of Schoolboy Q and the paranoid terror of Danny Brown, Piñata’s stories are presented as matter-of-fact crimes in the drug-flooded decay of Gary, Indiana. “Surviving off cold cuts and cold Spam / Can’t see eye to eye with my old man / Hiding my insecurities with this gang flag,” he admits in “Broken,” an especially personal cut. Regardless of his faults, Freddie presents as a sympathetic character, a man pursuing the American dream, albeit via questionable means.
In a testament to their standing among other rappers, Freddie and Madlib are able to enlist a pretty fantastic group of features. “High” finds Freddie, Danny and their assortment of women and customers inhaling (and ingesting and drinking and snorting) to the point of unconsciousness. It is a relatively fun, consequence-free song from two rappers who detail all too clearly the less pleasant side effects in other songs. Raekwon features on “Bomb,” a darker tale of robbery and drug sales, with Freddie comparing himself to notorious gangsters Fred Lucas and Tony Montana. Raekwon congratulates himself on his wealth and trolls his detractors, rapping “you live with your moms, just get a grip.” Other features include Earl Sweatshirt, Ab Soul, Casey Veggies, Domo Genesis and, interestingly, Mac Miller.
On “Lakers,” Gibbs salutes his adopted city, Los Angeles, along with natives Ab-Soul and Polyester the Saint. It is a good song, but it is more interesting as a reminder of just another similarity between Freddie and Tupac himself (Tupac was an East Coast native who moved to LA). You may claim sacrilege, but there is probably no current rapper more similar in theme or style. Freddie may not have Pac’s charisma and he will never have his following, but anyone that dismays the failing of modern hip-hop compared to the Golden Age of the ’90s clearly is not listening closely enough.
All of this is not to say that Piñata a perfect album. It still has a few of the flaws that always accompany Freddie — strange monologues, some no-name features and an exasperating stubbornness when it comes to his flow and subject matter — he once again takes a song (“Real”) to diss Young Jeezy, his former label boss, but it just feels forced and petty. Public beefs have become commonplace enough in the industry that I am always cynical about whether a “beef” is really a disagreement or a shallow attempt at generating buzz. Nonetheless, Gibbs and Madlib have combined to make a whirlwind of an album. This Piñata is certainly not for children, but for hip-hop heads and street rap connoisseurs gangster Gibbs and the inscrutable Madlib have delivered a surprising treat of a project.