Max Bell is not against rap or those thugs.
Freddie Gibbs rose from scary Gary to Interscope refugee to widespread critical adoration. Some argue that the dexterous Gibbs can rap well over anything. Yet his last album, E.S.G.N. received mixed reviews. The album was solid, but it was also what you’d expect too. It didn’t help that it dropped after Baby Face Killa, arguably Gibbs’ most diverse and fully realized slab.
Accordingly, expectations for Piñata (formerly Cocaine Piñata), his collaborative album with Madlib and first working exclusively with one producer, were high. There was immense pressure for Gibbs to paint a more complex self-portrait, to render himself not only as a cold-blooded gangster and part-time pimp but also as a flawed human being, one capable of love, pain, and joy. Maybe even remorse.
Having the mercurial Madlib in his corner only added to the burden. To work with the recluse who produced Madvillainy and not deliver would be tantamount to blowing the game-winner in the final game of the NBA Championship. The miss will follow you around forever.
Conversely, Madlib’s stake in the project appeared minimal. He’s released a lifetime of material – solo, collaborative, curatorial, etc. – that ranges from solid to superb. Outwardly, there’s little left to prove and little can hamper his reputation. Yet the decision to work with Gibbs suggests a great gangster rap album might’ve topped the beat konducta’s bucket list. If his pairing with Gibbs proved a bad dope deal, there was a chance that Madlib (even though he’d continue to produce) would be personally hurt.
Fortunately, Piñata is one of the best rap records of 2014 — gangster or otherwise. To make the call in March may seem premature. And, given that Gibbs plans to release another album this year, it might also be a damning assertion. Still, it will be difficult for anyone, let alone the album’s authors, to match a distillation of craft so pure.
Gibbs’ guarded revelations are stacked with uncompromising singularity, his sinister, celebratory, and solemnly reflective rhymes expertly delivered. This is bullet-riddled reverence, rapping for the love of the art that aims to expand the aesthetic limits of that art. And, with his banging, carefully chopped suites, Madlib continues to his mission to prove that sampling will never die. Any loop digger with an MPC can claim to be an archaeologist, but only the maddest mystic can resurrect the dusty, fragmented vinyl shards.
Unapologetically nonlinear, Piñata’s flashback narratives are tempered with modern day exultations of hard-won success and contemplative reminiscence. In the past, transactions are handled via JPay, not PayPal; groceries are purchased on EBT cards, not debit. In the present, bills are paid with money from Gibbs’ ‘Master P deal.’ In the past, killers move in silence and violence. In the present, the enemies have long been exterminated and the medical marijuana club is around the corner. The stress and stress weed are back in Gary.
Whether or not either temporal sphere is foreign, Gibbs makes both accessible. In the world of Piñata, ‘Slammin’ and ‘Thuggin’ are all encompassing, time-traveling idioms. Their respective seven letters are as synonymous with sex, selling/smoking drugs, and chrome-plated homicide as much as they are regret, nightmares, and cold sweats in the midnight hour.
Though they work incredibly well together, Madlib and Gibbs haven’t met in the middle here. Madlib’s beats, some of which slow down, speed up, or change entirely on a whim, were undoubtedly made without consultation. Gibbs was then left with the daunting task of rapping over them. Yet he rides over each with seeming ease. No matter where Madlib goes, Gibbs follows floating on a kush cloud. “Real,” for example, moves from frenetic Incredible Bong Band thump to twinkling, string lined boom-bap. Gibbs never falters.
The track arrangement is seamless, as solid as the most tightly bound producto de Colombia. “Knicks” and “Shame,” for example, are back-to-back soul-chopping serenades. Subtly different in construction, they’re markedly different in content.
Even though it dropped in 2011, “Thuggin” remains Gibbs and Madlib’s best collaborative effort. The beat is deceptively complex, the jangling keys at once fantastical and dangerous, like a flickering streetlight illuminating a neon chalk outline in the twilight. Gibbs sells the science of street rap like the ghetto’s Gordon Gekko (in Wall Street 2), trading on the dangers and pitfalls of the life he once lived. He’s been to jail and he’s not going back. All apologies have been traded for more paper. For Gibbs, rap has always been repentance.
However, Piñata is far from all ski mask menace. Gibbs has some fun (see “Robes” or “Pinata,” both of which find him singing). There’s also depth here. It may not surface upon first listen, but the most rewarding works are those that require, well, work. The pain of selling drugs to family members turned fiends (“Thuggin’”); the joy and hurt inherent in love, lust, and infidelity (“Deeper”); the restorative properties of marijuana (“High”); airing out former friends (“Real”); remembering your youth (“Harold’s”) – this probably isn’t your life, but there are still numerous moments for empathy and sympathy.
“Lakers” and “Broken” rank among the most moving tracks. The former chronicles Gibbs’ move to L.A., the struggles therein, and the dream of his sins washing away with the tide of the Pacific. It’s also the G.I. native’s declarative admission that home is where you lay your Dodger fitted and raise your kids.
“Broken” actually does find a remorseful Gibbs. Minimum wage wasn’t enough. His dirty deeds were desperate and, in the grand scheme of it all, futile. (“Fuck the government, I got my own deficit / Death to me the only thing that’s definite / Money rule the world, but when you dead that shit’s irrelevant”). The drugs, girls, and gang flag only hid his insecurities. He knows this, but can’t change the past. Hindsight is his only consolation.
The guest appearances rarely detract from Gibbs and Madlib’s unlikely yet undeniable chemistry. Many work incredibly well. Danny Brown rolls up with his midwestern brethren on smoker’s anthem “High,” tracing his predilection for the purple back to his not-so-distant days on the block. Raekwon assists on “Bomb,” painting pictures of the luxurious ends instead of the grimy means. The younger guard is well-represented by Domo Genesis and Earl Sweatshirt, both of whom offer their best verses in recent memory on the jazzy “Robes.”
Yet the most effective feature comes from Scarface on “Broken.” One of Gibbs’ gangster rap forefathers, his feature is both fitting and long overdue. Honesty is embedded his deep rasp. His lyrics balance G code commandments with poignant meditations on the working class (“Imagine working graveyard shifts / Boss man steady talking that shit / A million a day is for minimum wage / Work a nigga like a slave ‘til he put him in his grave”).
Sadly, like Ab-Soul’s verse on “Lakers,” the featured verses on the title/final track should’ve been cut. To top it off, the last verse goes to Mac Miller, who can’t decide if he wants to skim Dickens and/or Emerson, quote Adam Sandler movies, or be Asher Roth. Gibbs should’ve had the last word, but maybe reaching a point in your career where you can solicit verses from rappers who’ve had a Bar Mitvah affords him some strange sense of validation.
This is Madlib’s best production work with any rapper since Doom. His productions may initially seem simple, but are actually multi-layered collages, the samples as deep-rooted of the most potent, orally consumable fungus. Shades for every one of Gibbs’ moods. He again brought the best out of one of the best.
Given Madlib’s involvement on Piñata, I’ve sparingly mentioned Madvillainy. However, any and all heavy comparisons will be unfounded. The records are papier-mâché Zebra’s of a different color. The difference between psilocybin induced tripping and smoking a blunt of blue dream.
Ultimately, Piñata doesn’t bump with the bang of a double barrel. Those not willing to play it more than once will be doing themselves a disservice. Adversaries have been slain, customers have overdosed, women have been scorned, but the guts of the piñata have been not been laid bare. Gibbs is asking you to break it open and sift through the white residue for the revelations.
Together, Gibbs and Madlib cleansed the perception of the gangster mentality and opened the door to the haunted aftermath of felonious existence.