Freddie Gibbs & Madlib - Pinata

Paul Thompson reviews Freddie Gibbs’ and Madlib’s new masterpiece.

Additional Info


ALBUM: Pinata

ARTIST: Freddie Gibbs & Madlib



Your neighbor across the hall hates sampling. It doesn’t make sense, he says—how is stealing someone else’s song creative or commendable? Most rap fans who value their mental health can shrug off such inanity. But maybe it raises valid questions: why is rap built on sampling? Is it a tenable foundation for works purporting to be not only great, but personal?

If any living person is qualified to answer these questions, it’s Madlib. With a record collection that would make the crate-digging enthusiasts in New York blush and the ingenuity to flip them all, the Los Angeles native has cultivated a reputation as one of the weirdest, most brilliant beatsmiths in all of hip-hop. He also has been known to be scattered and unfocused, too entranced by all his source materials’ possibilities to bear down and make each release as focused as it could be. But at his best, he’s one of the greatest to ever sit down behind the boards, best known for he and MF DOOM’s staggering Madvillainy. More than anything, Madlib is the walking, blunt-smoking embodiment of the value of sampling. Flipping something old is the fastest way to move forward: each flip is a comment on the original, a response to something that was affecting in the first place. Art, especially music, is communicative; with producers like Madlib, the conversation starts when the vocal booth is still empty.

It’s with this spirit of diligent appropriation that Freddie Gibbs arrives at the microphone. Call it myth building with shortcuts: his identity is a collection of gangsta rap tropes and familiar narratives, stitched together with vivid details from his upbringing in Gary, Indiana’s postmodern hell. This isn’t to say that Gibbs is unoriginal; rather, he’s the natural endpoint for two-and-a-half decades of street rap, each deviation from the archetype a deliberate, coded choice. If gangsta rap is about fatalism—making the most of a bleak fate, doing what one can to survive, and hiding the chinks in the armor—then Gibbs is riding around in the middle of the apocalypse, one arm hanging out the side of his ’77 Cutlass.

Pinata has been made piece-by-piece over the last few years with songs being released slowly, two at a time on EPs. These early looks assuaged doubters who thought Madlib too weird and Gibbs too straight-faced and mean to make a good fit. (Some of those cuts—“Thuggin’”, “Shame”, “Harold’s”, “Deeper”—end up here, and each one sounds even better in context.) Madlib is at his dense, bizarre best, but Gibbs is unshaken in the face of even the most leftfield production choices. This supreme confidence in his abilities gives Gibbs a special kind of aura, especially when he draws back the curtain to show vulnerability or regret, as he does on the Scarface-assisted “Broken”. It’s Gibbs’ unique narrative gifts that allow Pinata to move lazily from gun-waving to fast food orders to the LA riots as if they’re all part of one weed coma dream. Because to Gibbs, they are.

Unlike many of his spiritual predecessors (and despits all the Pac comparisons), Gibbs has no political bent. On “Thuggin’”, he asks “Why the Feds worried ‘bout be clocking on this corner/when there’s politicians out here getting popped in Arizona?” The line is part of a running commentary; it’s an assertion that what happens on the news and what happens on the streets are two separate worlds, seldom colliding. On “Uno”, the aggressive, G Rap-nodding number at Pinata’s midpoint, even the handful of bars about hip-hop at large feel like a strain on the borders of the universe Gibbs and Madlib have created. The scope is narrow—Gibbs acknowledges this over and over again—but everything in the field of vision is turned over, examined, and more often than not, shoved in a duffle bag.

The album is a masterpiece, without so much as a weak verse or a poorly placed hi-hat. There are moments—the beat change on “Real”, the slow burn of “Harold’s”—where Madlib threatens to monopolize the listener’s attention. Instead, Gibbs steps up to the plate each and every time. Pinata is home to the best writing of his career, cutting through the posturing to speak directly to the listener’s deepest insecurities. Who’s to say if we should be more afraid of being Gibbs or the guy he’s cuckolding on “Deeper”? As he says over and over on “Shitsville”, “you motherfuckers just like me”. Make no mistake, while Madlib and Gibbs might be working with old components, the product they put together is entirely their own.

“I live on borrowed time, my expiration date, I passed it”

1. Supplier
Only the strong survive.
2. Scarface
“Scarface” is brief, but it’s powerful. Dropping the listener squarely in the middle of Gary, Gibbs rips off a vicious verse where he suggests he and his partners “jack this nigga ‘cause he got some shit we can’t afford”, the most basic and fundamental motive possible. Malib’s beat is a clever update on early-‘90s gangsta records, dusty and mean, with bass stabs that could be at home at a high school prom in a different world.9.0
3. Deeper
It’s easy for vulnerable moments on gangsta rap records to wreak of tokenism. For every “Mind Playing Tricks On Me”, there are dozens of clunky odes to mothers and girlfriends that lack the honesty and vitality of the artist’s grittier material. Gibbs has an innate ability to weave these moments seamlessly into his bleakest, most heartless songs. “Deeper” opens “Slamming—half a thing of heron in the back room”, and when his girl is introduced, she’s cooking and giving head. So when she strays while Gibbs is on a “vacation to the county”, it’s a fascinating left turn when the rapper shows the cracks in his veneer: “Maybe you a stank hoe, maybe that’s a bit mean/maybe you grew up and I’m still living like I’m sixteen”. He has the girl lying to her new man, and maybe Gibbs is lying to himself, but the loss, the pain, and the betrayal is real.10.0
4. High
While every fan and critic would agree that Gibbs has a gift for narrative and unimpeachable attention to detail, he doesn’t get nearly enough credit for his technical abilities. On “High”, the syllables fall precisely over Madlib’s breezy smokers’-lounge bounce. It should be boilerplate, but it’s executed so well that it feels somehow foreign. Danny Brown drops by for a stellar guest verse, his rapid-fire whine as sharp as ever. While it probably falls short of the rappers’ previous collaboration (“The Return”, the stellar piece of Outkast homage from Brown’s Old), “High” still impresses.9.0
5. Harold’s
If you need proof that Gibbs is the hardest dude alive, look no further than “Harold’s”. He talks about hording guns for protection and keeping crack rocks in his pocket, neither of which is as pressing an issue as…chicken. In what is sure to be the best piece of cross-promotion in rap this year, “Harold’s” leans on Gibbs’ favorite order at the Chicago staples: six wings, mild sauce, and “all the fries you can give me”. Madlib hits that elusive pocket wherein the track sounds relaxed enough to be played at any August barbecue, but swaggeringly mean enough to ward any challengers.10.0
6. Bomb
Over a beat that sounds like the score from a dystopian sci-fi film, Gibbs has no time for hooks or any such trivialities. Halfway through the second verse, he says “Life is like a movie, all I did was play my fucking part”. This, after all, is the thesis of the whole album: Gibbs is going to do what he has to do to survive, because this is the hand he’s been dealt. There’s no shying away from this, even if his mother is on the other end of the phone (“Told her if I die, then it was part of nature”). Raekwon comes through with a razor-sharp verse, frantically (for Rakewon) promising that he’ll “hold these twenties tight” as long as he has breath in his lungs.9.5
7. Shitsville
The outro of Shitsville is quietly one of the smartest things to happen in rap this year. Much of gangsta rap—especially those in gangsta rap who know white, suburban, voyeurism is a huge financial windfall—is dedicated to mythologizing the rapper as a foreign, caricatured villain. Gibbs takes the opposite approach on “Shitsville”, in two ways. First, the hook is dedicated to the humanizing parts of his life (“You wake up every day and pray before you sleep, right?/you motherfuckers just like me”). But before the song ends, he turns this around. Gibbs recounts some of his more distasteful traits (“Cheat on your girl, your wife, sneak out to fuck hoes”, etc), still insisting that you’re just like him. He paints a vivid picture of a villain, and then reveals that he’s holding a mirror up to the listener, something more chilling than any story from his hustling days.9.5
8. Thuggin’
Another song that has been a staple in blog-literate rap circles for some time, “Thuggin’” sounds even better in context. Madlib is smart enough to know that great production doesn’t have to be suffocating in its complexity. That can be left to Gibbs, who spends equal time reveling in his “solidified” G status and wallowing in self-loathing (“My low-class, black ass would serve my own fucking family members”). This isn’t infallible, glamorous stuff, either—Gibbs talk about buying groceries with EBT and how fundamentally replaceable his role is in all this (“If she don’t cop from me, she get it from a nigga up the street”). This is fatalism at its meanest.10.0
9. Real
As was to be expected, this is the most-discussed song from the album; we’ve been waiting for an out-and-out Freddie Gibbs diss for Jeezy for some time now. But first things first: the beat change a minute into “Real” is ungodly. Madlib has never been one to let things play out as expected, but few times has a mid-song transition caused so many heart palpitations. The opening salvo is furious, no-frills dopeboy rap—the kind that made Gibbs a perfect fit on Jeezy’s team. But when the diss starts in earnest, it sounds like we’ve been dropped unceremoniously into the climactic scene of a kung-fu revenge movie. Gibbs is not the kind of rapper who would write a song for with click-through rates in mind; “Real” comes from a dark, unsettlingly personal place. Basically, the song has the weight of something that needed to be said. There’s no joy to be had.9.0
10. Uno
At first, “Uno” feels like filler. It’s a glowing testament to Pinata’s brilliance that that thought would even enter your head. Instead of spinning new narratives or tackling new subject matter, “Uno” is a reiteration of Gibbs’ central credo. Shots at Wayne aside, there isn’t much that can’t be found elsewhere on Pinata. But Madlib and Gibbs are firing on all cylinders (or all stove elements), and cutting a song this good would be pure lunacy. It also helps to round out Gibbs as a genuine hip-hop fan, ending with a solemn wish that Big L still had his life, and DMX his sanity.8.0
11. Robes
When they first started to gain notoriety on the blog circuit, Odd Future were a little bit dangerous. Tyler, the Creator and Hodgy Beats’ now-legendary performance on Jimmy Fallon had more than a bit of wink-and-nod cartoonism to it, but it was dark enough to make middle America flinch enough to recall Eminem’s heyday. But since at least Goblin, the group has become increasingly goofy and carefree. The kids from LA ride unicorns and sell socks, and the thinkpieces about violence in rap have all but disappeared. In short, “Freddie Gibbs featuring Odd Future” doesn’t make a lot of sense at first glance. But on “Robes”, Earl Sweatshirt and—especially—Domo Genesis are out to remind everyone that they can really, really rap. The latter is only twenty-three, but he comes off like a sage (“You ain’t shit if you ain’t never struggle/you gotta put in hard work before you flex your muscle”), and Earl leaves behind Doris’ harsh boom-bap for a smooth, mellow verse that still reminds listeners he “don’t know how to cope with shit”. But the real stars have their name on the record sleeve. Gibbs’ verse is world-beating (“Fuck every rapper and his entourage”) is matched only by Madlib’s impeccable production.10.0
12. Broken
Scarface doesn’t care about labels, label politics, or regular old politics. He just cares about life. Every track the Houston legend touches is completely taken over by his gravity—his voice, his you-are-there detailed storytelling, his unexpectedly personal revelations. So when he implores you, on “Broken”, to “Imagine working graveyard shifts”, you do just that. Madlib does his best N.O. Joe impression—the track could easily have been from the B-side of The Diary. For his part, Gibbs more than delivers. Recalling the time his grandmother found his work, and he promised to stop hustling, he sheepishly admits “she knew I was lying before I even spoke”. Honestly, he knows he’s out here fucking up.10.0
13. Lakers
As the saying goes, no one in LA is a native. Fittingly, it’s Gary, Indiana’s finest who delivers an ode to the City of Angels that crawls and smolders like the heat off the pavement on Figueroa in September. As much as visitors might pretend it’s all beach volleyball and Hunger Games premieres, Los Angeles is a city of endless urban sprawl and similarly perpetual violence. It isn’t much of a stretch to imagine Madlib’s beat as the backdrop for a tribute to a fallen friend; instead, it’s a for an earnest love letter. Ab-Soul’s verse is mostly good, until it’s great. “I’m so LA, my dad died on King.”9.5
14. Knicks
We can get the obvious out of the way: no, LeBron didn’t score 56 points on the Knicks in 2005. Minor inaccuracies aside, “Knicks” is one of the smallest, brightest, and most intimate spots on Pinata. For once, Gibbs sounds wistful as he reminisces. There aren’t many bright spots to remember with your drinking buddies, though; the opening bar recalls Michael Jordan’s comeback game in 1995, then quickly reminds that some of his friends wouldn’t live to see the following year. Ten years later, history repeats itself. But that wistfulness is the key to unlocking Gibbs’ whole persona. He’s resigned to the grim life that comes with hustling, but still able to relish the fact that he’s alive and providing.9.5
15. Shame
Pimps catch feelings, too. On “Shame”, another song that was released earlier as part of an EP, there are lots of guns and waving around, but they’re really extraneous. This is Gibbs’ version of New Girl, and his bottom bitch is up to her same old shenanigans. Gibbs raps confidently and effortlessly about the girl he “followed to the breakfast spot”, then never wanted to leave. In the end, he’s still the calloused one, cackling to himself as he “Chuck the deuces at her baby daddy as I pull up out the driveway”. Perversely, it’s earnest, even sweet. “Wish I could say it was accidental.”9.0
16. Watts
Gibbs’ uncle blesses us. Go fuck your fans.
17. Pinata
About a decade ago, the perpetually smirking Joe Budden rapped over the same sample. His track, “Bullshit Rappers & Metaphors”, was a lighthearted jab at G-Unit that doubled as a chance for him to flex his basest punchline skills. Budden (ironically) took a shot at the “wack niggas” who “need nine minutes to get a point across”. On “Pinata”, that’s the beauty: seven rappers, no hooks, one single point strung up, ripped apart, and buried. The guest spots—other than Mac Miller, probably—are of a single mind, but Gibbs and Madlib smartly sequence them so as to vary deliveries and intensity. It’s Gibbs who comes out on top; when he deadpans “reputation say I’m robbin’ just for recreation”, it’s half lament, half boast. When Miller—who might be scraping the bottom of his nerdy-stoner reference barrel—caps the track with “O’Doyle rules”, the message is clear. The bullies won. 8.0
Paul Thompson is a writer based in Los Angeles. He is a the lead writer at 2dopeboyz and a frequent contributor to Passion of the Weiss.

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