REVIEW: Piñata by Freddie Gibbs & Madlib

 By Tate Gieselmann

Last Tuesday, Freddie Gibbs and Madlib released their long-awaited collaborative album Piñata through Madlib’s Invazion imprint. Sporting a plush zebra print backdrop and a shot of Gangsta Gibbs smoking a blunt on it’s cover, the album sets a tone of juxtaposition from the jump. Similar to the zebra in the background and the chain link fence in the foreground, the lush production style of Madlib and the grit of Freddie’s voice and style act as yin and yang to create a style that hasn’t really ever existed in hip-hop.

Freddie Gibbs has been an outlier his whole career. The Gary, Indiana native turned Los Angeles lurker came up around the same time Kendrick and J.Cole were using introspective, melody-driven mixtapes to appeal to hip-hop heads and mainstream audiences alike. Instead of utilizing co-signs (Wale) or sugarcoated hooks (Wale) to gain traction, Gibbs stuck with his guns—almost literally—and created frenzied, fast flowing records that showcased his trademark voice and flow.

Madlib, aka Otis Jackson Jr. aka the Loop Digga aka Quasimoto aka Lord Quas aka ½ of Jaylib, Madvilliany, and Lootpack, is a living legend. This is the dude who tripped out on mushrooms for a week and made a classic album, the dude who was given the exclusive opportunity to dig through Blue Note’s crates and remix jazz standards. When I think of Madlib, I imagine him sitting in a nondescript Southern California garage for weeks at a time, surrounded by records, weed and his music equipment. He’s the only producer other than Dilla and maybe Kanye who have created full, classic albums in the past fifteen years with only samples. He’s a genius.

These two dudes are some of the very best at their individual crafts. In spite of this, Gibbs has often rapped over par to subpar production; whether this is a product of his 2011 signing to Jeezy’s CTE label or a lack of connection to the right people, he never seemed to find the right beats to complement his charisma. However, Madlib has been known to lace MC’s with the perfect beats to create a full project that exemplifies both the verbal and musical aspects (see: DOOM, Kweli, Dilla). When I heard MadGibbs collaborate for the first time I nearly lost my mind. “Thuggin” might be the greatest unexpectedly gangsta rap song of all time—deviating from traditional trap production, Madlib laces Gibbs with a hypnotic, cosmic-funk loop that accentuates the legitimacy of Gibbs’ in-song boasts. The video is even better than the track, with Gibbs robbing Madlib at gunpoint (that Scarface jacket though) and real people smoking real crack out of real crack pipes. The world—at least the hip-hop world—waited with baited breath for each MadGibbs release, from “Shame” to “Deep”, “Deeper”, “Terrorist” and “Harold’s”.

Though I was hoping they would keep the “Cocaine” in the title, “Piñata” remains ferocious from beginning to end. Gibbs rarely strays from form, delivering song after song of uncut raw. Madlib’s production mostly follows the style of “Thuggin”: minimal drum patterns driving obscure, lush samples. This isn’t a theme driven album, but thanks to the individual talent of the two collaborators it doesn’t need to be. However, they both demonstrate they can deviate from their proven formulas: Gibbs performs an ode to fried chicken on “Harold’s” and Madlib’s production on “Shitsville” sounds like his personal take on an early 2000’s Jay-Z record.

A few particular highlights:

  1. The first 1:30 of “High”: not trying to say anything about Danny Brown here, but Fred takes his verses to a shady harbor, ties their feet to cinderblocks and throws them off the dock. The way the hook comes in is too great and shows off the chemistry between Gibbs and Madlib.
  2. “Real”: Damn. This song really gets going around 1:00, where the beat switches and Gibbs goes in on his former boss/partner Jeezy. It amazes me that Gibbs can tell such a vivid story while pushing his nonstop flow to the limit. If I were Jeezy I would stay well the fuck away from interaction with Gibbs, ever.
  3. Scarface’s verse on “Broken”: how gangster is it that there’s a song named “Scarface” on the album and Face himself shows up ten songs later?? That verse, too… bruh.
  4. At first I was a little disappointed that the previously released songs (“Thuggin”, “Shame”, “Deeper”, “Harold’s”) all showed up on the album. On second thought, though, these songs are all gems well worth another spin or ten.

The album is full of highlights. Madlib’s interspersed vocal samples, while not as on-topic as his Melvin van Peebles Quasimoto drops, serve to set a gritty tone that meshes well with Gibb’s street narrative. I don’t think I heard Gibbs take one breath during the whole album—he doesn’t flow so much as curbstomp his verses.

Though the album has more peaks than valleys, I do have a few issues with it. My (albeit minor) grievances:

  1. No Quasimoto verse: by far my largest problem with “Piñata”. Lord Quas is one of the main reasons I got into Madlib’s production and style, and to date remains my favorite project he’s been involved with; controversial, I know, but that shit slaps. A Gibbs x Quasimoto song could have changed the damn world.
  2. “Piñata”: I don’t really need a second Domo Genesis verse on this album and 5 minute-plus posse cuts just haven’t been the same since “Triumph”. A dope Gibbs verse gets lost between the Flatbush Zombie dude’s yelling and Mac Miller throwing down a predictably mediocre verse. On a positive note, I sat like five feet away from Sulaiman once and he seemed pretty cool.
  3. A lack of truly diverse production: Madlib is one of the most talented producers of all time—he’s delved into Jazz, Latin, Funk and Dub music before in innovative ways. It seems a shame that most of the production relies on typical hip-hop verse-chorus-verse styles; I thought that Madlib would have thrown more curveballs to Gibbs. This could be due to Gibb’s individual beat preference, but once again the potential was there.

Regardless of criticism this album is a great listen. While not every track captures the beautiful juxtaposition that is “Thuggin”, their formula provides a well-rounded album that sees Freddie flexing his style at its best and Madlib providing the twists and turns associated with classic ‘Lib production. “Piñata” sets a perfect vibe for cruising, whether bendin’ corners in the Southern states or squeezing into a Shanghai subway.

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