Will Hagle eats so many shrimp, he’s got iodine poisoning.
The listening party for Shadow of a Doubt doubled as a launch party for Freddie Gibbs’ new weed strain. The back patio at Los Globos was temporarily converted into a joint-rolling factory, with tubs of Freddie Kane OG available for the taking. A legion of loyal Gibbs fans manned the assembly line as Gibbs presided over them like a blunt-rolling Henry Ford. The mother of his child stood alongside, taking it all in. There was smoke in the air, but also a general feeling that Gibbs had accomplished something special. The rapper reflected that energy. Gibbs is known for his wide smile, but the one that remained affixed to his face throughout the event was fully justified. The ESGN brand had been firmly established.
People didn’t pay the $10 entry fee to see a regular concert that night, or even just to hear the new album before it was released. They came for an experience, and they trusted one man to deliver. If you ignore the slew of incredible projects he’s put out over the past several years, Gibbs’ ability to amass a steady following while remaining purely independent could be attributed to his charisma alone. He’s instantly likable and endlessly entertaining. His Twitter feed contains Bulls commentary as adept as Sam Smith’s, and his Snapchat Story is likely a direct contributor to the app’s overvaluation. He’s like Bill Simmons — highly sought-after yet unfit to work for any major corporation. The brief stints with Interscope and CTE never made sense. Gibbs’ interests were never at heart. It’s ESGN or die.
Because Gibbs has been operating on his own, it’s never really felt like he’s released a debut album. ESGN is technically awarded that distinction, but it plays more like another step in his series of mixtapes than a fully-formed LP. Last year’s Piñata is a cohesive work that brought him new attention, but the album is half Madlib’s. Shadow of a Doubt is another independent project released midway through Gibbs’ career, but it feels like his first definitive album. It’s the presentation of a sound that he’s been cultivating for years. Every previous Gibbs album has had a few outright misses. Songs that lag or drag, or too many features from his friends. This has none.
Without G-Wiz or any of the other ESGN regulars, the album sounds more distant from Gibbs’ Gary roots than anything he’s released. Gibbs’ Indiana hometown will always be a crucial part of his identity, but he’s no longer just a Gary rapper. In the first verse of “Careless” he talks about taking I-90 from Chicago and in the second verse he mentions I-5 on the West Coast. He is the same wise-cracking gangster from a tragic town, but time has passed and his surroundings have changed. He lives in Los Angeles now, where he apparently can throw free weed parties without fear of legal repercussions. The conversation with Snoop at the end of “McDuck” suggests Gibbs invented the Gary sound, which is true, but he’s also used this project as an opportunity to blend influences from elsewhere.
The most obvious difference is the singing, borrowed both from the melodic style that’s popular in Atlanta right now and the melodic sing-rap that was popular in the Midwest with acts like Bone Thugs and Do or Die. Gibbs has sung on tracks before, but not to the extent attempted here. It’s a far departure from the straightforwardness of songs like “Bout It Bout It.” “Basketball Wives” is the most ambitious. It’s an auto-tuned ballad from start to finish, different altogether from Vince Staples “Summertime” yet reminiscent in the sense that it’s an unexpected, almost melancholy step outside a great lyrical rapper’s comfort zone. The hooks on “Lately” and, to a catchier degree, “Careless,” veer deeper into previously unexplored vocal territory.
The singing doesn’t come at the cost of Gibbs’ high-level technical rap ability. “Packages” is the most merciless a Gibbs verse has ever sounded. That verse, the beat, the hook, and Manman Savage’s contribution all make me want to say things I never say, specifically, “this song is fucking fire.” Elsewhere, Gibbs’ lyricism is still a reliably vivid depiction of the contradictions involved with street hustle. He confronts both personal issues and external struggles on “Freddie Gordy,” with lines like, “The oxycontin and heavy syrup got me looking in the mirror / said ‘Is you a dope fiend or a dope boy?” He winks at the political, rapping, “Fuck police ‘cuz they killing you and killing me / slanging and banging, my paper stay getting fatter / so do black lives matter when you’re about to kill your enemy?” “Narcos” is the best thing with that name to be released this year. “Fuckin’ Up The Count” is better than The Wire.
The album’s features are condensed in the middle of the album, beginning with two Black Thought verses and ending with Gucci Mane and E-40. The former sounds like a Piñata outtake, and Guwop’s hook on the latter has been stuck in my head since I heard it. Torey Lanez’ slightly distorted contribution on “Mexico” is difficult to understand, but I imagine I’ll hear it enough times that that Rihanna reference will make sense eventually.
The Dana Williams-assisted “McDuck” is one of the only songs that could’ve been left off Shadow of a Doubt. Maybe “Forever and a Day,” too. The rest of the songs aren’t perfect, but the way they flow together make this Gibbs’ most perfect album.
At the risk of sounding blasphemous, the production works better than Madlib’s did on Piñata. Gibbs impressively navigated those beats, but this direction is a better fit for his style. It’s a slight departure from the more gangsta rap traditionalism of earlier projects, mostly in the way that nothing sounds cheap or lazily thrown together. The synths swirl, the hi-hats skitter, and the claps echo. “Cold Ass Nigga” is the most visionary track in Gibbs’ discography, characterized by a sparse and disjointed beat that’s ultimately overtaken by an atmospheric synth line. It’s the perfect album closer and a prime example of Gibbs’ ability to command the direction of a track with his voice no matter what’s happening underneath it.
The concept of having “made it” is eternally elusive, but this album, the Freddie Kane party, and the current state of Gibbs’ life and career in general all indicate that he’s as close as one could possibly get.He’s gone from selling crack to curating legal weed strains, keeping the count straight along the way. The journeys from The Miseducation of Freddie Gibbs to now and from Gary to L.A. have both been long but Shadow of a Doubt is the artistic culmination.