Dynamic duos are a beautiful thing. Just think of John Stockton and Karl Malone: The prolific Utah Jazz tandem played together from 1985 until 2003, and in that time, they undoubtedly displayed insane chemistry. Stockton, a tenacious and levelheaded point guard, facilitated play through Malone, dubbed “The Mailman” thanks to his consistent delivery at the rim. The minutiae of their play — deft bounce passes leading to ground-shaking slams and impressive full-court connections leading to transition buckets — deserves the utmost praise. Despite their prolificity and teamwork, the two never won an NBA championship. Madlib and Freddie Gibbs are the rap game’s Stockton and Malone, respectively. The only difference is they’re now trying for their second championship with their new LP, Bandana.
After the release of Piñata in 2014, it was clear that the duo had something special. Gruff street-minded rapper Freddie Gibbs and hermetic beatsmith Madlib seem an unlikely pairing, but it makes sense. Madlib crafts sample heavy, flourish-filled beats and Gibbs does whatever it takes to ride them smoothly, and it works. It just works. And with Bandana, the two are poised to be even better together.
From the go, Gibbs and Madlib prove that they’ve reached a new level. The track “Freestyle Shit” begins with an apt warning: “Warning, the surgeon general has determined that the sounds you are about to hear will always be devastating to your ear.” The sounds certainly are devastating on Bandana, but that’s not a bad prognosis. Entire worlds will be rocked by these sounds, and it will be right and just. Right after this warning, listeners’ ears are filled with bombastic horns, record cracks and gentle, warbling woos and yeahs as Gibbs spits about his former life selling crack cocaine instead of records. Don’t get it twisted, though. This isn’t street rap; this is finely curated and timeless rap.
Though Gibbs often raps about moving weight and getting women, this record is so much more than that. With the help of Madlib, Gibbs takes on uncharted territory. Madlib’s beats can easily stand by themselves. No one needs to rap on them. In fact, not many can. Gibbs stands among the few who have worked with him on full-length releases (to put things in perspective, MF DOOM and Talib Kweli are a couple of the others who have worked extensively with Madlib). However, none work like Gibbs and Madlib do. Gibbs can and will ride any beat that Madlib throws at him.
On “Fake Names,” Madlib welds a seething strings section with pulsating, boom-bap inspired drums and creeping 808s together to produce what may be the smoothest beat on an album chock-full of smooth beats. Gibbs raps about his own life, specifically the downfalls of selling cocaine, spitting, “I done walked through hell in these size 12s / Speak from my own mouth before I let time tell / Dream team legal, I never take an L / Courtroom, funeral fresh, Givenchy my lapel.” As he sews these syllables together, the beat begins to spin, transitioning to a new, more lighthearted beat defined by hypnotizing flutes and triumphant horns. As the beat transitions, so does Gibbs, rapping about the glamors of a life defined by hustling. It’s sensational to hear the chemistry these two have.
In an album filled with incredible moments like Pusha T’s verse on “Palmolive” and Gibbs’s crooning on “Gat Damn,” Bandana’s best moment for Gibbs and Madlib has to be “Practice.” The way the two connect on the track is nothing short of amazing. On the production side, Madlib flips a sample of Donny Hathaway’s “Make It on Your Own,” transforming its soulful air into something much more somber and introspective. Likewise, Gibbs raps about questionable love, whether it be for the streets or secret lovers. After rapping bars like, “That ain’t like me, this ain’t the right me, but that ain’t her fault,” and “How I’m gonna break up with the streets? / I got the questions but I can’t find the answers / Delicate circumstances,” it’s clear that he is remorseful for his deplorable actions, but all he can do is move forward by himself. His delivery mirrors that of Madlib, perfectly showcasing why these men are a match made in rap heaven.
With Bandana, Freddie Gibbs and Madlib prove that Piñata wasn’t just a fluke, that they really are the best in the game. For every pass Madlib threw, Gibbs was there to grab and throw down the slam dunk. No matter how difficult the pass, Gibbs was always there to grab it, control it and drive it home. The two worked together with poise. Madlib and Gibbs know that they’re the best, all they had to do was prove it to the world. They have once again secured the honor of releasing the best rap album of the year. Hell, this dynamic duo may have just released the album of the year. And that’s a beautiful thing.