Deen is not here for your Woody Allen apologies.
2016 was a crap year for a good chunk of the planet but Freddie Gibbs would probably argue that he had a worse year than most. Artistically, he started the year with promise via a series of fantastic loosies, including what I still consider the definitive version of Kanye’s “No More Parties in LA,” and coasting on the great reviews of his last full length project. On the personal front, he was settling into fatherhood and success. In the spring, he headed out on the European leg of his tour and by the time his feet touched America again he’d lost a father figure and muse (RIP Big Time Watts), became terrifyingly familiar with Austria’s legal system, and nearly lost everything from his freedom and family to his friends and reputation.
Lately, it’s nearly impossible to find an artist or public figure that isn’t—to use the buzzword of the moment—problematic in some fashion. Nonetheless, one of the last things a fan wants to deal with is an artist accused of sexual assault. Tax evasion? That’s light work. Assorted misdemeanors? Barely registers. Some Cosby shit though? Umm … FUCK!?!?!!!
The first of Dave Chappelle’s recent specials (The Age of Spin) contains a fairly accurate illustration of the mental and moral gymnastics involved in processing a favorite being accused of horrible actions. Based on the mixed reaction to Chappelle’s attempt, I’m tempted to conclude that there’s no ‘right’ way to process these issues in public but there are several wrong ways to do so. Even so, I’ll briefly attempt to process my thoughts in regards to Freddie Gibbs and his legal issues.
I’ll apologetically admit that my knowledge of everything that’s happened in his life of late doesn’t affect my enjoyment of what I consider to be one of his best efforts to date. I’m disappointed in him and my default stance on sexual assault cases is to believe victims, but between a finding of innocence and him acknowledging and then limiting explicit references to the case, I mostly feel comfortable with judging the music on its merits — like I did before all that shit went down.
Some listeners might find the project more palatable if Gibbs’ attitude with specific respect to his legal issues wasn’t defiance, but I’m not sure there’s a way to marry typical rap bravado to an apology you believe you aren’t required to give after an acquittal. There’s also the fact that if you “listen between the lines,” Freddie offers a clear theory/defense of what may or may not have happened in Europe—which, in MY opinion, doesn’t completely absolve him of responsibility but allows me to remain a fan of the man and his music. I’ll leave it to you bright humans to figure out exactly what the man says, but “Homesick” would be a good starting point.
As for the music, it’s fair to say that an 8-track project hasn’t qualified as an album or “playlist” since folks were rocking Jheri curls and mullets. However, you’d be doing yourself and the artist a disservice if you paid scant attention to this tape just because it isn’t as long as the typical album.
I might be projecting a bit but the eight songs on YOL2 serve as a reintroduction (and resurrection from Gibbs’ perspective) to the continually developing artist some of us have known for almost a decade. Between albums, mixtapes and loosies, Gibbs’ discography is so extensive that he’s already made versions of all the songs on YOL2, but I’d argue that he’s rarely made them this organically and cohesively within one project. For instance, “Alexys” might be a BadBadNotGood and Kaytranada production, but it features the same sonic aesthetic and dense rhyming we heard through Piñata, his star-making collaboration with Madlib. “Dear Maria” is another mixed metaphor song that likens the drug game to women in the vein of “Natural High” from A Cold Day In Hell. “Amnesia” is his best trap rap anthem yet. “Phone Lit” and “Homesick” expand the looser rhyming approach he started experimenting with on Shadow of a Doubt. You get the idea.
Combining all these sonic ideas on one project works so well on YOL2 because Gibbs has found even more variations on his already malleable barrage of flows and just as importantly, his chemistry with ESGN Records in-house producer, Sidney ‘Speakerbomb’ Miller (as well as a group of prior collaborators such as Blair Norf and Pops). Speakerbomb’s contributions to Shadow of a Doubt hinted at this development and his versatility allows him to function as sort of the 40 to Gibbs’ Drake (blasphemy, I know) and the result is Gibbs’ most tightly focused and fitting project yet. For the record, Piñata was and remains great but ultimately, it was the equivalent of a mainstream Hollywood talent making an acclaimed indie movie. Freddie Gibbs is too versatile for me to consider Piñata his best work, Madlib stans be damned.
In under 32 minutes, Gibbs manages to to utilize ideas ranging from multi-suite songs, live elements, doubled vocals, harmonies, background vocals, and transitions, without allowing the songs or the entire project to bleed into the grandiose bullshit the big stars of the genre tend towards. On top of that, you pretty much hear every kind of ‘mainstream’ song filtered through the prism of who’s, for my money, still the best technician in rap today. Think of any rapper that’s mattered over the last three years or so. Now think of their trademark style of music then listen to this Gibbs project and be honest with yourself. Yup, I thought so.
For my final admission, I’m relieved that we didn’t lose Freddie Gibbs. There aren’t many rappers with his talent or range, especially without the backing of large corporate machines and I believe he more than proves that YOL2. This is the album the man had to make at this point in time, not just for his place in rap or for his fans but mostly for himself and the people (that used to be) around him.