Criminology Raps

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Criminology - Raekwon

You can hear the moment when Ghostface Killah, née Dennis Coles, turned into a superhero. A horn loop, sampled from 1970’s soul group Black Ivory’s “I Keep Asking You Questions” and trapped in the basement via RZA’s signature Wu-Tang style, blasts over a snippet from Gangsta Rap ur-text Scarface (“I told you a long time ago…not to fuck with me“). Then the horn drops out, leaving the drums and an ominous ringing noise that slices through the empty space, and Raekwon mutters “taking you on another one” before his partner in crime Ghostface comes through on some superhero shit:

Yo, first of all son, peep the arson /
Many brothers I be sparking and busting mad light inside the dark /
Call me dough snatcher, just the brother for the rapture /
I hang glide, holding on strong, hard to capture /
Extravagant, RZA bake the track and it’s militant /
Then I react, like a convict, and start killing shit

Oh my goodness – criminology raps indeed. He goes on to throw people off airplanes, trap them inside his chamber and leave them smoked at the doorway. If you don’t know what it means to be sent back to the essence, he gladly explains that you’ll be covered in dirt while you’re resting. The energy emanates from every bar, each line crashing into the next, the fluidity seizing all the air in the room. He’s hungry – leveling up on the urgency he displayed when he opened Wu-Tang’s debut Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers). It was his best verse to date.

“Criminology” (video above) is the fourth track on Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, an unequivocal masterpiece of a record that stands as a peak in Wu-Tang’s fertile five year run in the 1990’s – maybe the greatest musical period in American history. Raekwon’s solo debut crystalized the burgeoning gangsta rap trends that were coursing through New York City into a mafioso style, buttressed by gangster flick references and vivid noir writing, that has entwined with the rap’s DNA and can be still be noticed today.  The tape aims for its cinematic influences – complete with Ghostface getting a “Guest starring” credit as Tony Starks on the album cover – and for the most part surpasses them. The sense of place, the crime raps, the tempo and flow of the emotional narrative, are so sophisticated that mythical recluse Jay Electronica compared them to Fyodor Dostoyevsky.

Adopting the Tony Starks moniker for the first time on OB4CL, Ghostface used the tape as a stepping stone to rise from his status as a second-tier member of Wu-Tang to one of the most urgent voices in the New York scene. “Criminology” isn’t the best song on the album; it’s not even the best Ghostface moment! That could be “Verbal Intercourse” where he takes the hammer spot on a posse cut with an iconic Nas verse. Or it could be “Ice Cream,” where he has the lead verse on the only song on the album that was remotely close to a radio hit. My personal favorite moment of his is “Wisdom Body,” his only solo showcase that’s just him talking some game. He bursts into the room like DeNiro in Mean Streets (“Heads clocked once I came in the door”) sees a young lady and proceeds to talk his shit, showcasing not just his eye for detail but an empathy and intimacy that’s missing in today’s slew of emotional rappers dealings with women (“Yo, what’s your name hun? Hair wrapped in a bun, your eyes sparkle just like glass in the sun”). It’s a premonition of his career to come – where his vivid clarity transcended the crime sagas detailed on OB4CL.

“Criminology” isn’t the finest example of Ghostface’s performance on Only Built 4 Cuban Linx but it is the first verse he has on the album that stopped me in my tracks. It’s thrilling when you someone grows into their potential right before your eyes (or in this case, ears). It’s like when Stephen Curry went supernova for the first time in the 2013 NBA Playoffs and ousted the higher seeded Denver Nuggets. Or, in a more grand gesture worthy of Mr. Starks, when LeBron James took over in the 2007 NBA Eastern Conference Finals in a performance that Steve Kerr called “Jordanesque.” Ghostface Killah’s transformation into Tony Starks cemented his place as an all time great. His debut solo album the next year, Ironman – thus named for his Tony Starks nom de plume – secured his superhero status. Once the Wu-Tang Clan’s prime finished in the 90’s, Ghost leveled himself up once again. His solo stretch in the 2000’s was a marvel – matching Jay-Z’s output album for album for the GOAT status (if not commercially, then artistically). You could hear it all here first, when Starks first attacked the RZA baked track and started acting like a convict and killed shit.

Well Versed: Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)

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If what you say is true, the Shaolin and the Wu-Tang…could be dangerous.

In my last article, I mentioned that the debut album of the Wu-Tang Clan, Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), was ranked as the greatest hip hop album of the last 30 years by Spin Magazine, and I can’t disagree. As I’ve written before, the Wu-Tang Clan was a group of such deep mythology and dynastic relevance that their debut album should be revered with the same respect as the bible. Every rap fan has their personal favorite Wu-Tang album, but their iconic debut has always been mine. Where the other classics excelled by perfecting a singular sound, Enter The Wu-Tang was dense and chaotic, a thousand possible flows and ideas and inspirations. The hiss of the record became the buzz of the killer bees. That RZA, the groups leader and producer, was able to perfectly calibrate that energy and turn it into a comprehensive album is remarkable and unrepeatable. Never before or again will we see an album that showcased this much talent working in such harmony.

In the first column of Well Versed, I’ll break down a rap album through the best verses; because a lot of times a record can be measured by the quality of its verses rather than its songs. Sometimes I might countdown the top 10 verses, or I might rank the guest verses (I’ll definitely rank the guest verses). But for Enter The Wu-Tang, we’ll do something different. In honor of the massive amount of MC’s that contributed, I’ll rank the best verse from each member. It’s not easy task, as all of the rappers here are working at peak capacity. And since it’s a matter of preference, everyone should of course go listen to the album at the source.

Let’s start with the easy ones.

U-God – “Da Mystery Of Chessboxin'”

Raw I’m gonna give it to you, with no trivia
Raw like cocaine straight from Bolivia
My hip-hop will rock and shock the nation
like the Emancipation Proclamation
Weak MC’s approach with slang that’s dead
you might as well run into the wall and bang your head
I’m pushin’ force, my force your doubtin’
I’m makin’ devils cower to the Caucus Mountains

Masta Killa – “Da Mystery Of Chessboxin'”

Homicide’s illegal and death is the penalty
What justifies the homicide, when he dies?
In his own iniquity it’s the
Master of the Mantis Rapture coming at you
We have an APB on an MC Killer
Looks like the work of a Master
Evidence indicates that’s it’s stature
Merciless like a terrorist hard to capture
The flow, changes like a chameleon
Plays like a friend and stabs you like a dagger
This technique attacks the immune system
Disguised like a lie paralyzing the victim
You scream as it enters your bloodstream
Erupts your brain from the pain these thoughts contain
Moving on a nigga with the speed of a centipede
and injure – ANY MOTHERFUCKING CONTENDER

U-God and Masta Killa only contributed one verse apiece for the clan’s debut, the first and last verse of “Da Mystery Of Chessboxin.” U-God only got to put in one verse because he was incarcerated for the majority of the recording sessions for the album, but his intro here still ranks as one of the more iconic moments of the tape. Masta Killa earned his spot as the 9th and last member of the clan with his verse here. RZA was producer as a roman emperor, with MC’s engaging in rap gladiatorial combat to see who would be on each song. Masta Killa beat out several other rappers for his shot at immortality. Rap as doctoral thesis.

RZA – “Protect Ya Neck”

Yo chill with the feedback black we don’t need that
It’s ten o’clock hoe, where the fuck’s your seed at?
Feeling mad hostile, ran the apostle
Flowing like Christ when I speaks the gospel
Stroll with the holy roll then attack the globe with the buckus style
the ruckus, ten times ten men committing mad sin
Turn the other cheek and I’ll break your fucking chin
Slaying boom-bangs like African drums (we’ll be)
Coming around the mountain when I come
Crazy flamboyant for the rap enjoyment
My clan increase like black unemployment
Yeah, another one dare,
Tuh-took a genius (to) take us the fuck outta here

GZA – “Protect Ya Neck”

The Wu is too slamming for these Cold Killing labels
Some ain’t had hits since I seen Aunt Mabel
Be doing artists in like Cain did Abel
Now they money’s gettin stuck to the gum under the table
That’s what you get when you misuse what I invent
Your empire falls and you lose every cent
For trying to blow up a scrub
Now that thought was just as bright as a 20-watt light bulb
Should’ve pumped it when I rocked it
Niggaz so stingy they got short arms and deep pockets
This goes on in some companies
With majors they’re scared to death to pump these
First of all, who’s your A&R
A mountain climber who plays an electric guitar
But he don’t know the meaning of dope
When he’s looking for a suit and tie rap
that’s cleaner than a bar of soap
And I’m the dirtiest thing in sight
Matter of fact bring out the girls and let’s have a mud fight

“Protect Ya Neck” was a mission statement. It was their first single, recorded and passed out on cassettes until it swarmed all over New York. It became such a street hit that when they put it on the album, they put an intro before the song of someone calling into a radio station asking for that Wu-Tang joint (Again? Aww yeah, again and again!). It could very well be the greatest song ever made, and every verse here is perfect. RZA and GZA, the oldest and most experienced members, got top billing and deliver their own sermon on the mount. RZA goes absolutely bonkers, foreshadowing his kinetic frenzied style that would characterize his later rapping, flowing like Christ and announcing his plans for world domination. He alley oops it to GZA who lives up to his Genius moniker. GZA and RZA had solo careers before starting the Wu but they were mishandled by their labels and left for dead. The clan was a rebirth for both of them, but not before GZA could give them a sendoff with this scathing undressing. There is no better summation of the divide between the street life of many rap artists and the business dealings of the labels than his devastating description of an A&R: a mountain climber who plays an electric guitar.

Raekwon – “C.R.E.A.M.”

I grew up on the crime side, the New York Times side
Staying alive was no jive
Had second hands, moms bounced on old man
So then we moved to Shaolin land
A young youth, yo rockin the gold tooth, ‘Lo goose
Only way, I begin to G’ off was drug loot
And let’s start it like this son, rollin with this one
And that one, pullin out gats for fun
But it was just a dream for the teen, who was a fiend
Started smokin woolies at sixteen
And running up in gates, and doing hits for high stakes
Making my way on fire escapes
No question I would speed, for cracks and weed
The combination made my eyes bleed
No question I would flow off, and try to get the dough off
Sticking up white boys in ball courts
My life got no better, same damn ‘Lo sweater
Times is rough and tough like leather
Figured out I went the wrong route
So I got with a sick tight clique and went all out
Catchin keys from across seas
Rollin in MPV’s, every week we made forty G’s
Yo brothas respect mine, or anger the tech nine
Ch-POW! Move from the gate now

Inspectah Deck – “C.R.E.A.M.”

It’s been 22 long hard years and still strugglin
Survival got me buggin, but I’m alive on arrival
I peep at the shape of the streets
And stay awake to the ways of the world cause shit is deep
A man with a dream with plans to make C.R.E.A.M.
Which failed; I went to jail at the age of 15
A young buck sellin drugs and such who never had much
Trying to get a clutch at what I could not touch
The court played me short, now I face incarceration
Pacin’, going up state’s my destination
Handcuffed in back of a bus, 40 of us
Life as a shorty shouldn’t be so rough
But as the world turns I learned life is Hell
Living in the world, no different from a cell
Everyday I escape from Jakes givin chase, sellin base
Smokin bones in the staircase
Though I don’t know why I chose to smoke sess
I guess that’s the time when I’m not depressed
But I’m still depressed, and I ask what’s it worth?
Ready to give up so I seek the Old Earth
Who explained working hard may help you maintain
to learn to overcome the heartaches and pain
We got stickup kids, corrupt cops, and crack rocks
and stray shots, all on the block that stays hot
Leave it up to me while I be living proof
To kick the truth to the young black youth
But shorty’s running wild, smokin sess, drinkin beer
And ain’t trying to hear what I’m kickin in his ear
Neglected for now, but yo, it gots to be accepted
That what? That life is hectic

If “Protect Ya Neck” is the greatest song on the album, then “C.R.E.A.M.” is the most iconic. Over one of RZA’s most indelible samples, Raekwon and Inspectah Deck flip the script on the gangsta rap that was coming from the west coast. All of L.A.’s takes of inner city life translated into big booming blockbusters, but this was film noir; dark shadows and understated horror. Raekwon the Chef shows his mastery of economical language, packing a lifetime into every bar. A young kid, born on the crime side, the NY times side, who’s only way out of poverty was the drug trade. Deck plays the yang to his yin, the warning conscience to Rae’s bad example. Inspectah Deck was the straight man of the Wu, always better within the team bouncing off of the other personalities than he was on his own. But he dropped some of the best verses on the album and “C.R.E.A.M.” was his shining moment, a plea for sanity and safety before giving up and accepting that life is hectic. The song would become immortal as the biggest missive against capitalism this side of Marx.

Ol Dirty Bastard – “Da Mystery Of Chessboxin'”

Here I go, deep type flow
Jacque Cousteau could never get this low..
I’m cherry bombing shits… BOOM
Just warming up a little bit, vroom vroom
Rappinin is what’s happening
Keep the pockets stacked and then, hands clapping and
At the party when I move my body
Gotta get up, and be somebody!
Grab the microphone go straight to the phone
DUH-DUH-DUH…enter the Wu-Tang zone
Sure enough when I rock that stuff
Guff puff? I’m gonna catch your bluff tough
rough, kicking rhymes like Jim Kelly
or Alex Haley I’m a Mi-..Beetle Bailey rhymes
coming raw style, hardcore
Niggas be coming to the hip-hop store
Coming to buy grocery from me
Trying to be a hip-hop MC
The law, in order to enter the Wu-Tang
You must bring the Ol’ Dirty Bastard type slang
Represent the GZA, Abbott, RZA, Shaquan, Inspectah Deck
Dirty Hoe getting low with his flow
Introducing, the Ghost..face.. Killahhhhhh!!
No one could get iller

The late ODB was one of the most singular personalities not just in the Clan but in all of hip hop. His rap style could not be imitated; twenty years later and just now we’re seeing young artists able to tap into his unique mania. His rap style predated adlibs, brought sing rapping to the forefront, and enlarged the circle of what was and wasn’t acceptable to rap. It’s hard to choose just one verse of his as the best, but “Da Mystery Of Chessboxin'” balanced all the best parts of his style. He brought the bars and the energy, and in the middle of this posse cut he completely stole the show. There are so many gems; his Jacque Costeau shout out, his jerky flow, and the way he shouts out KILLLAHHHHHHHHHH at the end. He is missed.

Method Man – “Method Man”

Hey, you, get off my cloud
You don’t know me and you don’t know my style
Who be gettin flam when they come to a jam?
Here I am here I am, the Method Man
Patty cake patty cake hey the method man
Don’t eat Skippy, Jif or Peter Pan
Peanut butter, Cause I’m not butter
In fact I snap back like a rubber
band, I be Sam Sam I am
And I don’t eat green eggs and ham
Style will hit ya, wham!, then goddamn
You be like oh shit that’s the jam
Turn it up now hear me get buckwu-wu-wild
I’m about to blow light me up
Upside downside inside and outside
Hittin you from every angle there’s no doubt
I am, the one and only Method Man
The master of the plan wrappin shit like Saran
Wrap, with some of this and some of that
Hold up (what?) I tawt I tat I putty tat
Over there, but I think he best to beware
Of the diggy dog shit right here
Yippy yippy yay yippy yah yippy yo
Like Deck said this ain’t your average flow
Coming like rah ooh ah achie kah
Tell me how ya like it so far baby paw
The poetry’s in motion coast to coast and
Rub it on your skin like lotion
What’s the commotion, oh my lord
Another cord chopped by the Wu-Tang sword
Hey hey hey like Fat Albert
It’s the Method Man ain’t no if ands about it
It’s the Method

Method Man was the clear breakout star of the clan and for a minute in the mid 90’s might have been the best rapper alive. His movie star charisma was easily identified, which gave Method Man not only the best hook duties but his very own song on the album. Meth just glides over this beat, turning a goofy piano line into one of the catchiest songs in hip hop history. There isn’t even a verse per se, he just raps until he switches into a bridge and then starts again. You could argue that his solo career never lived up to the potential of this moment, but that’s more a testament to the song than anything else. He emptied everything in the tank on this one.

Ghostface Killah – “Bring Da Ruckus”

Ghostface, catch the blast of a hype verse
My glock bursts, leave in a hearse, I did worse
I come rough, tough like an elephant tusk
Ya head rush, fly like Egyptian musk
Aw shit, Wu-Tang Clan spark the wicks an’
However, I master the trick just like Nixon
Causin terror, quick damage ya whole era
Hardrocks is locked the fuck up, or found shot
P.L.O. style, hazardous, cause I wreck this dangerous
I blow sparks like Waco, Texas

We end at the beginning. Ghostface Killah, one of the few candidates for the GOAT position in rap, didn’t do as much to distinguish himself on their debut as his crew members. His trademark flamboyant style and visceral storytelling would manifest later in his solo career. But in the very first verse on Enter The Wu-Tang, no one could want a better opening. Over RZA’s snarls of “Bring da muthafuckin ruckus,” Ghost straight kills it, rhyming elephant tusk with Egyptian musk, disparaging Richard Nixon, and shouting out the P.L.O. The seeds of one of the greatest rappers ever were laid out.

It’s remarkable to listen to a tape that’s 22 years old and have it hold up. Enter The Wu-Tang is a big bang of an album; a claustrophobic force that could create a universe. We’re just blessed to be living in it.

Hungry Hippopotamus Best Albums of 2014: #1 – Freddie Gibbs

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We’re finally here! Look back at the nine previous albums now!

In Sprite’s new hip hop focused ad campaign, our resident rap ruler Drake says something a bit disorienting: “Just rapping is not really that impressive anymore. There just has to be more. You have to be a multi-layered artist.” The age of the rap-singer is upon us. As rap has gotten intertwined with pop, it’s as if the only way to get noticed is to immerse yourself to radio or stand out completely. So far 2015 has been the year of the rapper who doesn’t want to rap; they want to be a rockstar, or a jazz icon, or a fashionista, or a conductor. The most popular rapper on the planet doesn’t even write his own raps! Maybe Drake’s right and rapping isn’t impressive anymore. That’s the only explanation for the unfair, lukewarm reception that has greeted Freddie Gibbs and Madlib’s masterpiece Pinata. There’s nothing fancy, or even innovative, about this record. There’s just the best beats of the year from one of the greatest producers of all time and the best rhymes of the year from someone on the short list for best MC breathing. If that’s not impressive I don’t know what is.

This isn’t an obvious match. Freddie Gibbs, an L.A. transplant from Gary, Indiana, a rap cyborg who was kicked off Interscope for not toning down his technically driven murder music, teaming up with the Beat Konducta himself, the patron saint of the L.A. underground. Pinata (originally the much better named “Cocaine Pinata”) is not a beautiful act of chemistry. This is rap as athletic activity, with Madlib lobbing out absurdly difficult beats for Gibbs to knock out of the park. But what could have been a genre exercise turned into a masterpiece and a career benchmark for both parties. Freddie Gibbs got a chance to flex over the best production he’s ever had, forcing him to be more creative with his songwriting. Madlib, after years of churning out instrumental projects, came out of the wilderness to find one of the best rappers he’s had a chance to collaborate with. They both provided what the other needed.

Freddie Gibbs and Madlib are both incredible at what they do. The sheer technical prowess is so evident on the record — the way Madlib cuts his samples into jagged soundscapes, and the way Gibbs finds a way to flow over them — that Pinata could be the best album of the year on that merit alone. What exceeds expectations is how they find greatness in simplicity. All the song titles are one word and yet perfectly named, summarizing the efficient style of the album. For all the (unwarranted) critiques that Freddie Gibbs can be boring because of the homogeneity of his lyrics, Pinata finds him as a master songwriter. He tells stories with the best of them, whether about lost love on “Deeper” or adolescent memories on “Knick.” There’s the gleeful hedonism on “High” and the paranoid noir of “Bomb.” He drops off the best diss track of the decade with “Real,” a scathing, explicit attack on former mentor and rap icon Young Jeezy. There’s the delirious, playful “Robes” immediately followed by the poignant, world wearied hush of “Broken.” Pinata is a study of contrasts, with Gibbs spanning a field of ideas and emotions without it ever feeling too disparate. He has Madlib to thank for that, who plays John Williams to his Steven Spielberg. Much respect to DJ Mustard, Flying Lotus, El-P and the rest of the great producers this year, but Madlib takes home the crown for best production front to back on an album this year. These are beats you can drown in, blunted jazz so luxurious that you’ll want to wear it.

Like most great art, what started out as a creative exercise has become so much more. Twenty, maybe even ten years ago, this album would have been deemed iconic, and it’s a shame it hasn’t received that attention. It sounds like it comes from another funkier age. There are a lot of talented guest rappers on the album, but the only ones that manage to hold their own with Gibbs are the two hall of fame hip hop legends, Raekwon from the Wu-Tang Clan and Southern rap godfather Scarface, who sound as good as they ever have over Madlib’s sculpted loops.

Rap is changing at such a fast pace it’s hard to keep up with it. Drake’s right. You can’t just rap anymore to break out from the crowd, but when you rap this well, over beats this great, perhaps anonymity is what you need. To hear a genre done well at such an elemental level, there isn’t a greater thrill as a music fan. Call me impressed.

Read the original review here

A Better Tomorrow Can’t Live Up To Yesterday

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Wu-Tang Clan Share New Track Let’s throw out a couple of bold declarations about the most mythic group in popular music. The Wu-Tang Clan are the greatest crew in hip hop history. They fundamentally changed the music industry from the ground up; becoming an integral part of the rap universe while still remaining a niche. Their initial five year run from 1993 to 1997, from their earth shaking debut to their chart topping follow up and all of the solo landmarks in between, is quite simply the greatest streak in musical history. Better than The Beatles ’65-’70, The Rolling Stones ’68-’72, Stevie Wonders ’72-’76, all of them. One of the greatest parts of rap music is its world creating powers, and no one was better at that than RZA and the clan. After they debuted and brought a whole new universe of personality, beat making, and style with them on Enter The Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers, each subsequent release from a member opened a new door. It’s not a “you had to be there” event either. Even with all the acclaim and subsequent releases around the group, the chambers still conceal a rabbit hole for anyone who wants to fall in. With A Better Tomorrow on the way, the first Wu-Tang group album in seven years, the clan is hoping to live up to its promise of “Wu-Tang Is Forever.” But does it have a chance to compete with it’s past?

The answer is no. Every great debut casts a shadow over the rest of the work, but the Wu managed to avoid that curse by having so many divergent personalities. We’re talking about 9 of the most talented MC’s to ever breath here, there’s no way one album could sum up all their talent. Even their post ’97 body of work is vast and extraordinary. But it’s hard to pinpoint what exactly goes wrong here. It’s not fun to hear all the second stringers lead off on the track. The raps are fine, though nothing jumps out from the song.

From the first two singles, I think the problem is the production. RZA is the greatest producer of all time and he deserves the lions share of the credit for the clan’s takeover, not just for creating the murky sonic underworld that embodied the Staten Island rappers, but for the business acumen and leadership qualities that he used to squeeze out so many classics. These songs just aren’t it though. It’s as if he’s updating the dirty samples of the groups origin into a more regal setting. “Ruckus In B Minor” is a much better title than song; the ambitious beat changes for each rapper and yet none of it really connects. “Ron O’Neal” fares better from a rapping standpoint but suffers the same problem. There’s a disconnect between the clan and their producer. This isn’t new. Their last album, 8 Diagrams, drew so much controversy over RZA’s production choices that there was a fissure in the group that wasn’t patched up until now. But where the psychedelic wistfulness of 8 Diagrams was bold and framed the clan in a new light following the death of Ol’ Dirty Bastard, these new songs don’t seem particularly inspired.

If I was their personal adviser, I’d let them know that the days of the Wu-Tang Clan are over, but that doesn’t mean that Wu-Tang isn’t forever. These are still some of the most accomplished artists in the history of the genre and they’re all in the middle of great things. Raekwon has been bodying guest verses on all sorts of acclaimed albums this year, and he recently dropped a new mixtape We Wanna Thank You, a collection of his freestyles over old school soul songs. It’s his best project in years; a loose, fun exercise showcasing his densely packed rhymes.

Ghostface Killah has slowed down after an outstanding decade that positioned him as a contender for G.O.A.T., but he’s starting to sound inspired again. Teaming up with hip hop/jazz fusion band BadBadNotGood for a collaborative album dropping next year, Ghost luxuriates in his legacy and goes toe to toe with some of the best contemporary rappers around. And he’s not the only clan member finding new life. GZA’s giving talks about science and the universe at Ivy League universities. Method Man is rapping better than he has in years. Even RZA sounds inspired by his new stuff, turning in the highlight verses on the new singles. I’m all for new Wu-Tang and whatever creative muses these guys have they should follow, but maybe a group album isn’t the best way to do it anymore. There’s too much personality to try to wrangle into a room and try to relive the glory days. They deserve better than that. But hopefully I’m wrong and A Better Tomorrow will paint the glorious future that the album art suggests.

Candy Rappers and Cocaine Pinatas

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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 dateBaby 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.