There’s a rap lyric that I think about a lot, tucked into the final verse of Royce da 5’9’s “Boom,” where he goes: “When you listen to my shit, you don’t chew, you don’t breathe, you don’t miss a fuckin’ line.” It’s the perfect encapsulation of the physical thrill of listening to a great rap verse. Such verses are hard to find, and even harder to create. Great ones transcend the pretty binaries of mainstream vs. underground, political vs. personal, cerebral vs. direct, technical vs. rudimentary. They’re not about flow, style, cadence, or even skill. They’re about saying whatever you’ve got to say in a way that encourages, or even requires, deep listening, the type of active focus on the part of the listener that can wane at the first sign of a misplaced syllable.
Throughout his career, Freddie Gibbs has turned in hard drives of great raps, his records becoming essential listening for a certain type of hardcore hip-hop fan. The Gary, Indiana rapper famously burned out of the major label system in the mid-2000s, only to re-emerge with a pair of mixtapes, The Miseducation of Freddie Gibbs and midwestgangstaboxframecadillacmuzik, which helped him find an audience of eager fans online who could care less about whether or not he could hack it as a radio rapper. Soon enough, he had established himself as a force among hip-hop’s just-below-mainstream set, along with artists such as Danny Brown, Open Mic Eagle, and Curren$y — rappers who were too odd or uncompromising for the radio, but too compelling to ignore. Gibbs distinguished himself in part for a pitch-dark worldview and a flow that married passion and verbal dexterity, as well as a willingness to rap over everything from rumbling trap beats to country-rap to Big L classics to church bells.
In the past few years, Gibbs has been on a tear, releasing a series of concise, focused projects in which he’s significantly expanded his palate as a writer, weaving in complex political commentary as well as humor, self-reflection, and a touch of genuine warmth. It’s impossible to separate this artistic turn with events in Gibbs’s personal life: While on a European tour in 2016, Gibbs was arrested in France and extradited to Austria, where he was jailed on sexual assault charges that stemmed from an alleged 2015 incident at a hotel in Vienna. While sitting in jail awaiting trial, he read and wrote prolifically, sketching out several albums’ worth of material. Eventually, he was acquitted due to lack of evidence. (In interviews following his trial, Gibbs maintained that he has “nothing to hide” relating to the incident while also insisting that the falsely accused are “a minority” when it comes to allegations of sexual assault.)
His latest record, an album-length collaboration with the producer Madlib titled Bandana, is a product of that period, as were many of the verses on his 2017 effort You Only Live 2wice. Gibbs and Madlib have united in the past, for the 2014 album Cocaine Piñata, considered by many a highlight of each artist’s career. Madlib is a producer’s producer, a veteran West Coast weirdo known for obsessively digging through literal tons of obscure records in search of samples, assembling them into off-kilter loops that crackle with otherworldly magic. The beats on Bandana were among a group of tracks Madlib had originally given to Kanye West for potential inclusion on The Life of Pablo, only for Kanye to reject all but one of them, the Pablo single “No More Parties in L.A.” It’s easy to see why Kanye, who during his ascension to stardom was regarded as a crate-digging sampling wunderkind, would be drawn to Madlib’s beats in theory; it’s equally easy to see why he ultimately decided to use almost none of them. The beats on Bandana by no means contain the stadium-filling expansiveness that West’s newest work leans heavily upon, and instead feel simultaneously lived-in, yet beamed in from an alternate reality. While they might not have worked for Kanye, they’re the exact sort of sounds that, due to his quick tongue and ability to find the pocket of nearly any instrumental, Gibbs can tackle with aplomb.
As a whole, Bandana is expertly executed and genuinely fun, as graceful and bloody as a John Wick fight scene (the titular character of which Gibbs compares himself to on the standout track “Half Manne Half Cocaine”). Madlib’s beats work best in short bursts. His solo work is full of tracks that are less than a minute long, and on Bandana, rather than trying to extend a sample past its natural lifespan, he’ll often switch the beat up wholesale, in the process eliciting some of Gibbs’s most jaw-dropping work as a rap technician — such as on “Fake Names,” when Madlib slides a slower backing track under Gibbs while he’s in the middle of a verse and manages to adjust the tempo of his rapping in real time.
These two-part songs also find Gibbs tackling the same subject from two angles; “Flat Tummy Tea” begins with Gibbs narrating a journey on a slave ship and ends with a pointed critique of the carceral state under both Obama and Trump. On “Practice,” he turns to self-criticism, taking himself to task for his infidelities and for fronting his friends money so they can sell drugs. “If they really loved me they’d be keeping me from it,” he raps, before copping to having given therapy a shot and lamenting that it “ain’t change shit.”The album builds from menace (“Crime Pays”) to reflection (the aforementioned “Practice”) to its climax, “Cataracts,” a song as joyous as anything Gibbs has released in his career, in which he reflects raps about the birth of his daughter, going vegan, and getting off drugs, rapping it all with the urgency of a person sprinting towards enlightenment.
Gibbs is a canny and versatile performer who’s just as happy to make his point by singing as he is by dropping a double-time flow. Though his lyrics can be dense, he’s by no means a “dictionary rapper,” someone who bends over backwards to cram a bunch of big, cumbersome words together just so they can. Instead, when he opts for a showy delivery, it feels like the result of a series of carefully planned artistic choices made in service of a greater statement. Gibbs is older and wiser now, and he’s learned that sometimes, in order to take your listener’s breath away, you’ve got to give them a chance to breathe first.