Artist: Freddie Gibbs
Released: March 18, 2014
There’s something about Freddie Gibbs that just screams authenticity. It’s in the world-weariness of his lyrical swagger and it’s in the details of the deeds he claims to have done and in the way he describes the life that he claims to live. I write ‘claims’ but it seems abundantly clear that this man is the real deal and indeed, his whole musical shtick seems to be that he is last of the 90s style West-Coast gangsta left around. It would seem fitting, if in a rather convoluted way, that his partner in crime for this project is the none other than renowned musical villain, Madlib. Madlib’s style can hardly be considered ‘gangsta’ yet the man has understood the way that melancholic soul sounds can enhance a hardcore rap track in ways that the typical ‘gritty’ beats completely miss. This project, Piñata, is the duo’s first collaborative effort together and is the culmination of three years of (interrupted) work. It is an exploration of what the ‘gangsta’ style and culture means in the modern world and Gibbs’ own place in the culture at various stages of his life.
Lyrically, the album has numerous themes, some of the more common ones being Gibbs’ reflections on various things he has done in the past, often accompanied by some kind of moral judgement on what his current self thinks of those days and the person he was then. Often he looks back with fierce pride at how far he’s come but frequently there’s also an ambivalence to some of the things he did all while acknowledging the necessity of it all in making him who he is today. In one of the album’s first singles, ‘Deeper’ Gibbs reminisces about a past love with the clarity of maturity:
“Baby you a stank hoe, maybe that’s a bit mean,
Maybe you grew up and I’m still living like I’m sixteen”
While in the background Madlib deploys a nostalgic string set with a bittersweet soul vocal that complements the theme of lost love perfectly. Even in tracks that do not necessarily have the same emotional depth, Gibbs and Madlib constantly demonstrate excellent dexterity over hiphop fundamentals. Tracks like ‘High’ (with the typically manic Danny Brown), ‘Broken’ and ‘Thuggin’ all showcase Gibbs characteristic rapid fire flow at its finest.
The album does have some flaws though and they are large enough that they cannot be easily dismissed. Madlib’s palette seems oddly constrained on this project and to some extent it can be argued that the subject matter does not allow for much musical freedom but that itself is another issue on this album. Despite being full of bangers, there are a couple tracks that do not seem to manifest into anything interesting despite featuring great technique from both Gibbs and Madlib. Tracks like ‘Bomb’ and ‘Scarface’ have rather boring instrumentals while ‘Pinata’ has amazing rapping but drags on for too long on a beat that cannot sustain itself. Often however, I find that Gibbs’ greatest shortcoming as a rapper is that he cannot breathe life into a mediocre beat the way some hiphop legends can.
On the whole, there is an unsurprisingly amount of grit in the album and its backed by a deep sincerity, full of honest self-reflection as Gibbs thinks about his life in terms of his successes and his shortcomings. What differentiates this from so many other albums with similar themes is that Gibbs makes no excuses for either his successes or his failures. There is a simple honesty in this album of a man simply stating the facts and leaving the judgement to his audience and by the same stroke, there is also a modesty to it in that Gibbs acknowledges that what he has done is probably no greater a feat than what so many others have done but he takes an earnest prides in his own accomplishments without coming across as aggressively arrogant. Piñata captures Gibbs’ persona very well and Madlib’s production gives him a canvas that’s nuanced enough to capture his subtleties well.
High (ft. Danny Brown)