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”