Freddie Gibbs is nothing if not consistent. The man is admittedly one-dimensional and deadpan in his delivery, but my god, is there anyone else who has gone this long without a single weak project? Just when his mixtapes became noticeably formulaic and safe (box Chevys and backwoods appear in everything he touches), he surprised us all with the surprisingly versatile Piñata, the best rap album of 2014, which is not up for debate. Gibbs set the bar realistically high with mixtapes that brought a higher level of artistry to street rap; he was the only dude who could give you chills through a song titled “Let Ya Nuts Hang.”
Up until now, Gibbs has had a flawless track record. He underpromised and overdelivered with all of his album-quality mixtapes, and matched the higher expectations when it counted most: album time. Albums understandably come with higher standards, and Shadow of a Doubt falls painfully short of what was supposed to be his breakout project.
Straight from the jump, Shadow feels uncharacteristically generic. It’s as if he fleshed out all the elements that made his music unique and special, leaving only tidbits of an album he couldn’t seem to make. There are still flash-in-the-pan moments when he seems to get it right, but they’re few and far between. There’s no jarring street-journalism, no smooth MadLib-curated soul sample, no left turns — nothing. He does just enough for the album to be tolerable.
For example, he has a song titled “Narcos,” where the most gruesome line is “Chillin’ in my grandma basement / Probably dreamin’ ‘bout some cocaine.” On “Mexico” he recruits Tory Lanez (aka the “Great Value” Ty Dolla $ign) to yell “My whip color look like Rihanna / And all my bitches like designer.” Gibbs doesn’t get on much better, with three verses about nothing, not even selling drugs. “Mexico” confirms that Gibbs has become too concerned with being a “rapper” and less concerned with being Freddie Gibbs.
If that isn’t bad enough, what follows is the worst song of this dude’s career. “Packages” is so embarrassing I thought it was meant to be ironic at first. Gibbs, a man from Gary, Ind. (home of the Jackson 5), has absolutely nothing to do with the triplet flow that’s been booming in Atlanta the past few years. So when I heard him ad-libbing “I keep a pistol on me” with what sounded like his best Quavo impression, I was convinced this was a joke. But then the signature 808 Mafia sirens went off, and that was that. Gibbs sold the fuck out.
That’s not to say Shadow Of A Doubt is all bad. Gibbs reached out to fellow Jeezy-hater and legend Gucci Mane for “10 Times,” another great Midwest trunk-knocker he’s so well known for pioneering. The song segues straight into “Lately,” which surprisingly features R&B style crooning weaved into thumping percussion. There’s even some of the smooth melodies he experimented with on Piñata.
“Forever and a Day” is the obvious standout track, where he scrolls back to the autobiographical bars that immersed and won over his fans to begin with. For the first time on the album we get some real feelings. “I done did a lot of bad thangs’ just to get change / I done took it some levels that a lot of n****s won’t go” is hesitantly spit with just the right amount of regret. “Slung crack rock / Never had a wicked jump shot” summarizes his opportunities in Gary: basketball or eight ball.
But what ultimately makes Shadow a disappointment is that this is the first time Freddie Gibbs has come up against a hurdle that wasn’t comfortably below him, and he failed. He sold out to find workarounds, forced artificial personas that hadn’t existed in his six-year run and marginalized himself to be as safe and boring as possible. Gibbs was never known for trying to be “cool” or “smart,” but he had a polished identity, and that’s all we can ask for. The instant he compromised himself and put on an olive green bomber jacket, Shadow of a Doubt was always going to be a shit album.