Freddie Gibbs is a rapper. He can rap, and not in the way where people defend shitty rappers by saying they’re somehow redeemable because their words don’t fall off beat. Gibbs is a proficient storyteller, slick with his imagery, and can make two bars come to life like claymation, even if they tend to disappear right after. He can also shift into a double time flow without punching the clutch. For a few years now, he’s been making the type of region-less gangsta rap that sounds like a dude trying to get the fuck out of a nondescript midwest town full of poverty. Once he started getting some shine, he moved from Gary, Indiana to Los Angeles, California.
For a minute, he was signed to Young Jeezy’s CTE label, which seemed like a good fit at the time but amounted to little more than a cosign. He’s been experimenting with where he fits in the rap landscape, as a no-nonsense rapper who doesn’t have the hooks (neither choruses nor gimmicks) to make hit singles. He’s messed with fellow midwestern rappers, mostly from Chicago, southern rappers not limited to Jeezy and the new friends he met in L.A., all the while never straying from his trademark straightforward rapping that sounds like 50 Cent with a dry sense of humor. There have been songs that stood out throughout his mixtape run, most of which were produced by fellow Angelino Madlib. The two have made three EPs since 2011, and here on Cocaine Piñata (Madlib Invazion), they throw all their ideas in the pot and make a whole album.
Madlib’s encompassing production has a way of both bringing out some of Gibbs’ nuances and letting the rest stay in their lane, where they’re clever without being aggrandized. On “Harold’s,” an ode to the Chicago chicken joint, Gibbs can settle back into the guitar looped groove and give a smooth ode to chicken and women, without comparing breasts and thighs. The three singles (plus the sort of B-side “Harold’s”) Gibbs and Madlib previously released all show up and fit right in with the loose collection of the strings and slivered movie samples, and Gibbs nimbly rides them like he could do it in his sleep. Past the basics of gansta rap – smoking, drinking, leaning, robbing, killing, fucking, calling other rappers liars, seen-it-all sheepishness – there’s more fleshed out in these lowkey experimental beats, like his absentee father being a crooked cop on “Broken.”
Gibbs is getting better at picking features, as opposed to the rolodex over-saturation of ESGN or Baby Face Killa, even if he left Daz Dillinger and Spice 1 for some Odd Future rugrats. He and Danny Brown get “High” until they pass out from that Freda Payne sample. His raspy voice sounds balanced next to legends Scarface and Raekwon, he’s closer in age to Mac Miller. There’s also a west coast transplant anthem with Ab-Soul and L.A. rapper/singer Polyester the Saint (“Lakers”), right next to a song conflating nickle bags to the New York Knicks. There’s hardly a mention of the Indiana Pacers and Reggie Miller’s playoff heroics. Over time, there seems to be things he’s tried to forget, even if he can’t.
Speaking of which, the song “Real,” which leaked prior to the rest of the record, is a newsworthy diss at his old boss Young Jeezy that’s both petty as hell and much harder-hitting than Kendrick Lamar calling out his friends’ names. Madlib uses what might be the most polite beat for a diss song ever, letting all the ire come from Gibbs’s words. There is a definite chemistry between the rapper and producer, each knowing when to lead and fall back. And Madlib has a way of bringing out Gibbs’s understated personality, letting him sing and talk shit in the outros. Neither seem to be hell bent on taking over the genre, and the way they pull each other to a middle ground is never more than fantastically easy on the ears. Madlib isn’t rapping, he’s the producer. And Freddie Gibbs will continue to be a rapper.