Bridges Burn, Tables Turn: Freddie Gibbs & Madlib’s Bandana

Joel Biswas surveys one of the most anticipated (and best) albums of the year.
By    July 15, 2019

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Only union Joel Biswas got is the Western.

Once upon a time, Madlib and Freddie Gibbs inhabited distant extremes of the indie rap spectrum. Gibbs is an implacable purveyor of ice-cold Midwestern coke rap whose fidelity to his style feels like a form of athleticism, while Otis Jackson Jr. is a chameleonic L.A. crate-digger whose eclectic modus operandi is best understood by what he hasn’t sampled. But when the two joined forces for 2015’s Piñata, the seeming odd couple of hustler and auteur revealed chemistry that felt instantly canonical. In hindsight, that shouldn’t have been a surprise – both are prodigious in their output, promiscuous in collaboration and unswervingly focussed on lanes of self-expression they’ve carved out on their own terms, albeit in radically different expressions of the form.

Madlib cut his teeth as part of Oxnard’s vibrant late-nineties backpack scene, before pursuing his muse in ever more quixotic ways – from collaborative albums with Dilla to stately official remixes of the Blue Note catalogue, to the art-rap goofs of Quasimoto, to the live experiments of Yesterday’s New Quintet to his celebrated work with MF Doom, Madvilliany. Gibbs on the other hand is more survivor than eccentric, withstanding formative years in the major label wilderness to author a stunning run of releases through his ESGN imprint, tirelessly refining his outsize charisma, molasses-soaked voice, and forensic examination of the drug game to become the Midwest’s most vital rap export since Bone Thugs (or at least early Kanye). The two brought out the best in each other; Piñata’s desolate soundscapes showed a restraint far-removed from Madlib’s usual kitchen-sink style, while Gibbs delivered his strongest ever writing, revealing melancholic cracks in an otherwise bulletproof persona.

The result was an album that warmly evoked memories of classic DJ-MC partnerships, not least because of a presence of a thematic arc that compared favorably neo-noir crime masterpieces like The Diary or Only Built For Cuban Linx.

Five years and many false-starts later, the two re-emerge with Bandana an album that triumphantly belies its lengthy gestation through sheer vital power. It is more sonically varied than its predecessor, more willfully chaotic and more crammed full of ideas. Gibbs raps with the frenetic urgency of a man who knows he’s on borrowed time, so deep in the fast-life that unexpected revelatory moments of reflection gasp for air amid the machine-gun velocity of his criminal vignettes, while Madlib uncorks a heady brew of ear-worm jazz and soul loops that continually push Gibbs harder and make the album’s compact running time feel breathless and packed with incident.

Things start perfectly with a typically obscure Madlib snippet of Japanese dialogue before the sumptuous horn loop of “Freestyle S**t” sees Gibbs wax melodic about his pre-rap hustle, vividly interspersing reminiscences about selling crack in front of the Jackson’s family home in Gary, Indiana with rapid fire Rocky references, bitter musings on the emptiness of rap success and a hunger that remains unsated even as his weed habit inches towards the powders he’s whipping up in the microwave. The second track “Half-man Half-Cocaine” fast forwards the listener into Gibbs’ long now, painting a nightmarish portrait of Mr Kane, hustler extraordinaire moving ounces on the cash app, fingertips numb from handling crack, rap reduced to an afterthought. It’s as if last year’s “Freddie” album has been distilled to a vicious trap rap ur-text so explicit that you can taste the drip.

Indeed, it is the juxtaposition of the unflinching moral blankness of Gibbs’ gaze and his gospel-soaked urgency of his delivery that is at the heart of this album. “Crime Pays” revels in the transient material pleasures of Gibbs’ chosen dark art over a twinkling Rhodes serotonin rush that gets warmer with every listen. It’s seductive, kush-scented low-rider music but even in these lush surroundings, Gibbs cannot escape the realization that even as author of his own economic emancipation, he’s still a slave twisted in the system.

“Flat Tummy Tea” mixes trapanomics with Five Percent teachings but even his jeweler’s best efforts at pharaonic adornment can’t stop him drawing dark parallels between himself and the bodies once stacked on slave ships to service cash crops of a different kind. For Gibbs, even redemptive Hollywood slave epics are a reminder of the true state of affairs and “If we don’t take it, we don’t deserve it back.” “Situations” delves into harrowing personal backstory with antenna finally attuned to ironies both personal and cosmic, noting that “Obama got elected today/ I got arrested” or detailing an astonishing scene of public violence witnessed as a child at an arcade. When Gibbs raps “When my daddy ran over Eddie with that motorcycle, he ain’t been that n*gga since,” it’s impossible to know who the real victim is. On the elegiac “Practice,” Madlib’s exquisite vocal loops finds Gibbs’ mournfully detailing the cost of complex romantic entanglements before ultimately realizing that the street is his most toxic mistress.

With “Palmolive,” he drops the best verse of the album over a yearning guitar and vocal loop – a breathless dirge of blistering internal rhymes (“my neighborhood is something like Fallujah/Vladimir banana clip moving Russian Kahlua shooters”) before a rollicking Killer Mike hook and a stand-out appearance from Pusha T provide a flawless counterpoint, the art of hustling elevated to outlaw grandeur. Madlib is in full auteur-mode here. “Massage Seats” is a collage of skeletal dance hall voices and decaying drums. “Fake Names” deploys tense strings before an inspired flute-loop turns the song inside out, one of many memorable beat flips that keep up the album’s relentless pace and underline the contradictions at the heard of Gibbs’ persona. “Education” is a posse cut for the ages, with Gibbs playing the street corner prophet alongside Yasiin Bey and Black Thought, over production that is sublime enough to make you overlook Gibbs’ coming out as an anti-vaxxer on his verse.

Beyond the dazzling flows and production, Gibbs’ embrace of fatalism over nihilism gives the album real emotional heft as he turns over explore every facet of his hustler persona in search of deeper meaning, prodded impishly by Madlib’s sonic insistence. Bandana is a hip-hop crime opera for the Adderall generation in which chasms of moral ambiguity are not so explored across individual songs as they are traversed bar by bar, moment-to-moment – a thrilling high-wire act from two masters who make thrilling, angry music that is as messy as it is alive.

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