Freddie Gibbs captures intensity and honesty on 'Piñata'

Madlib Invazion

By Joshua Frazier, Daily Arts Writer
Published March 17, 2014

“I did not give a single solitary fuck.”


Freddie Gibbs & Madlib
Madlib Invazion

This proclamation of ambivalence from Freddie Gibbs, the Gary, Indiana-based street rapper is evident on his latest release, Piñata, a 17-song collaboration album with the producer Madlib. The two seem to be an odd match on paper. Gibbs is a deep-voiced former hustler whose gritty rhymes sound like completely true recollections of his troubled past. Madlib is one of rap’s eminent weirdos; he is a creative genius best known for working with MF DOOM and the late J. Dilla. Madlib’s production history is as diverse as it comes, and his use of chopped-up, sped-up and slowed-down jazz samples makes his beats formidable to rap over. Gibbs rises to the occasion and across this joint LP, he consistently provides top-tier lyricism and gritty storytelling over unconventional yet engaging production.

Piñata is a deeply nostalgic album filled with tracks that reflect on Gibbs’ past. Countless criminal offenses are recounted throughout the album, from armed robbery to drug dealing, but rather than feeling fabricated, each story sounds personal, and all too true. “I reminisce on all the crazy shit we did,” Gibbs rhymes on “Deeper,” before retelling the experience of the woman he loves having another man’s baby. Even when describing having his heart broken in great detail, Gibbs maintains his credibility as a brutally honest gangster. Gibbs’ greatest strength as an emcee is being relatable, and even his darkest tales of death and drug dealing resonate with the listener.

The lyrical content of Piñata invokes a visceral response. Gangster rap is not typically known for emotional honesty, and Gibbs trades braggadocio for introspective thought. The presence of money, crimes, women and drugs is visible throughout Piñata, but Gibbs, unlike many of his peers, does not glorify or condemn his past actions. This comes from an older man’s perspective on life, perhaps, and Gibbs, at 31, has seen enough of life to be jaded. At times, he sounds exhausted in his raps, world-weary from his life experiences. This is not to say that Gibbs lacks sufficient energy when appropriate — his manic smoker’s anthem teams him up with an excitable Danny Brown and Gibbs holds his own against the spastic Detroit emcee. Gibbs also showcases his laid-back flow on several introspective tracks, and his hardened voice is one of rap’s most distinctive, which only adds to his charisma behind the mic.

Where he really shines, however, is on the venomous “Real,” the sharply worded diss track aimed at Gibbs’ former boss, Jeezy. “Real” is a breath of fresh air — the rare diss track that pulls no punches and goes directly at its target. Gibbs exposes Jeezy’s shady business practices, cowardice and lack of street credibility, calling him a fraud and a liar. “Just a whole lot of rapping, but no motherfucking action” is a strong claim to make, but Gibbs backs up his vicious rhymes with his own credibility, making “Real” one of the hardest battle rap songs since Nas’ legendary “Ether,” proving that at his best, Gibbs’ sheer talent measures up to the greats.

Gibbs’ realness sets him apart from his peers. His decision to shun major labels and stay independent bolsters his credibility as his own man, and Piñata is a celebration of his authenticity and a takedown of other rappers’ phoniness all in one. On “Uno,” Gibbs criticizes sellout rappers and those who seek fame.

“Rapper reality shows, y'all just attention whores / Don't give a fuck if I set a record or win awards / I'm just blessed to be out here living life.”

Gibbs is respected enough in the industry to have guest spots from gangster rap pioneers Raekwon and Scarface, and he goes toe-to-toe with both. Other features on the album come from younger acts like Earl Sweatshirt and Mac Miller, who have also made a shift to introspective, avant-garde raps over the last several years. Madlib’s expansive production ties the whole package together. Beats drift from funk to R&B and back again, giving Gibbs and company opportunity to showcase their lyrical talents.

Piñata is a rare modern rap record that combines in-your-face intensity with reflective honesty over beats that sound like nothing else being produced today. With Gibbs’ charisma as an emcee, it is easy to overlook Madlib’s contribution to the album. The production is steeped in nostalgic crate-digging with a contemporary flair, and the diverse soundscape elevates Gibbs’ lyrical output, pushing him to new levels of creativity.

Freddie Gibbs and Madlib are rap industry outsiders known for their fierce independence, and their creative freedom to make the music they want to pays off on the collaborative album brimming with compelling stories of sobering violence and personal triumph.