Freddie Gibbs is always fighting an uphill battle. The Gary, Indiana native was stuck in the label purgatory of Interscope for years until he got dropped five years ago. When he compiled the discarded sessions into two fantastic mixtapes, it was clear why. Hardcore gangsta rap wasn’t popular last decade, and there was no market for intense technical rapping over trunk rattling murder music. But boy could he rap, and the ensuing buzz from the mixtapes landed him on the covers of XXL and LA Weekly and grabbed him a new deal. But right when he was on the precipice of stardom, nothing happened. Back at square one, Gibbs found a kindred soul in Atlanta trap star Young Jeezy, who’s drug dealing stomp had also been phased out by the major labels, and signed to his CTE Imprint. With a higher profile and some inspiration from his new home in Los Angeles, Freddie released his best work to date, Baby Face Killa. Fusing his midwestern style with west coast flows, BFK found an uncompromising commercial pocket for Gibbs’s music and contained the most radio ready songs of his career. But Jeezy didn’t promote it well, Gibbs felt that he was being mistreated, and the two had an acrimonious falling out last year. After his last album fell short of expectations, it looked like Freddie Gibbs might become another absurd talent that gets lost in the cracks. But his new album Pinata, a collaboration with legendary Stones Throw underground L.A. producer Madlib, has silenced any debate on Gibbs’ talent and stature. In a year where Los Angeles has repositioned itself at the top of the hip hop totem pole, Gibbs has put together an album that stands apart from the pack and crafted one of the seminal projects of the young decade.
The knock on Freddie Gibbs is usually that he’s just technique with no personality, that it can get tedious listening to him bludgeon beats over and over. But that severely underrates how good Freddie is at rapping. There are probably only two or three people breathing who can compete in the same skill level as Gibbs (and yes one of them is Kendrick) and Pinata is a tour de force of MCing. Madlib’s beats are not easy to rap over; the beat will change on a whim if there is even a beat at all. Freddie had to be on point the entire time or else the project just wouldn’t work and he succeeds admirably. The unconventional production forces him to be creative with his flows. He can ride the tempo on “Shitsville” like a mechanical bull and he can loosen his grip on “Broken,” letting the ends of his words trail off. Most of the time he makes it look so easy you don’t even notice the complexity, falling into nonexistent rhythms on “Harold’s.” Check out first single “Thuggin,” where after a movie snippet opens the track, Gibb’s cuts through some swirling guitar licks as the beat slowly starts to form. Then his flow and the beat speed up at the same time and the song is off and running before you even realize it begun. This kind of stuff is hard to do. There are some A-list guest stars on this record; Danny Brown, Earl Sweatshirt, Ab-Soul, Wu-Tang legend Raekwon, and despite their great verses they all get washed by Freddie. In fact the last track on the album, the posse cut “Pinata,” seems solely to exist to point out how much better Freddie is than every other rapper on it. The only person who is on the same plane is Houston rap god Scarface, who delivers an absolutely devastating 16 bars of pure pathos on “Broken.”
Credit needs to be given here to Madlib as well. These beats are difficult to rap over, but that doesn’t mean they’re bad. This is the leading contender for best produced album of the year. After his massive undertaking with the Madlib Medicine Show (where he released 12 albums in 2010!), the unseen producer has been off the radar for a while and Pinata has him roaring back with vengeance. He’s sculpted the album with a conceptual edge; songs are bookended by instrumental intros and outros, skits are given perfect mood music, movie samples act as perfect segues. The beats cover a staggering breadth of territory. There’s slashing funk on “Scarface” and soaring soul on “Shame.” “Uno” and “Bomb” open with carnivalesque opulence before retreating into beautifully stark menace. It would take a similar mystic to understand how Madlib chops up all his records, but he has a touch with the lost art of sampling that few of his peers can emulate. I’m still wrapping my mind around his vocal samples; he can place them front and center and create hooks on “High” or “Robes,” or he keeps them submerged, breaching the surface of the track ever so slightly on “Harold’s” and “Knicks.” In his incredible production discography, Madlib’s work here still shines as a highlight.
Even if it were just great rapping over these marvelous beats, Pinata would be an exceptional record. Maybe it’s the challenging production or maybe it’s the life experience, but Gibb’s is a much more confident rapper on this record. His “last real gangsta alive” persona has never sounded this engaging, and this album is filled with weary reflection, strong subtle storytelling, and revitalized gangsta rap tropes. Without ever pandering and evangelizing, Pinata portrays both sides of the coin, often within the same song. Freddie boasts about his sexual escapades on “Shame” but also details his heartbreak on “Deeper.” “Shitsville” simultaneously boasts about how gangsta he is while deconstructing the gangsta myth in the process. Drug dealing isn’t glamorized as much as it’s preserved. Moral turmoil resides in the asides, not on the soapbox. Gibbs is able to flip a clever conceit on two tracks back to back. “Lakers” is the best song about L.A. made in a minute, because Gibbs’ understands the allure of the city and its place in hip hop and American history. He gets the dichotomy of the city, the spotlight and the shadows, the gritty and the glamour. For him, L.A represents a certain type of redemption from where he grew up. He raps about “repairing that broken dream, that’s what L.A. about,” and the new meaning that’s been brought to the Dodgers hat since Magic bought the team. On the flip side is “Knicks,” a stoic ode to the consistent onslaught of violence in his life and the enduring ineptitude of New York basketball as he documents how little has changed in his life. “Pippen on the assist, I’m watching Jordan drop a double nickel on the Knicks. That was ’95, couple of us ain’t live til ’96, gangbanging, ‘caine slanging had us caught up in a twist” he starts the song. And then life repeats itself in the next verse. “Chilling with a bitch, watching LeBron put up 56 on the Knicks in 2005, police killed my nigga in 2006, only thing he losing is his pension ain’t that bout a bitch.” This type of storytelling goes far beyond just structural technique.
Freddie Gibbs may not have made a leap here, but he’s certainly made his best album. He’s been a top five rapper for the last six years now, but with Madlib’s impressive production serving as his canvas, his grown man raps are given new perspective. The best comparison is Killer Mike’s R.A.P. Music where a similar out of nowhere production choice and streamlined guest list allowed the rapper to create his biggest album. Pinata is incredible. Every song is a gem, every beat is fire. 2014 has already been an outstanding year for hip hop and a large part of it is Los Angeles having a moment. The city has cast off its ghosts and harnessed them into commercial and critical weapons, whether it’s TDE’s coded language or DJ Mustard’s streamlined bounce. But Freddie Gibbs has gone left of center by pairing with Madlib and explored an underappreciated sect of L.A. rap that is no less central to the city’s legacy. And he made a masterpiece in the process. I can’t imagine much else topping this album for best of the year.