Piñata, the new collaborative album from Freddie Gibbs and Madlib, radiates nothing if not class, right down to the elegantly minimal cover art and uniformly one-word song titles.
That word – “piñata” – might surprise some; as with everything that Gibbs attaches his name to, this project is straight gangsta through and through. It’s unrelentingly full of murder, robbery, grimy sex and the sale and consumption of drugs.
But such is the pedigree of both of the artists involved that Piñata doesn’t feel like your typical down-and-dirty gangsta record. Gibbs has nailed his execution down to such an exact science at this point that nearly every bar he drops, lands hard, no matter how he chooses to twist and stretch his deceptively musical flow. Not much more needs to be written on the production of Madlib, meanwhile. He is one of hip-hop’s true auteurs, with a varied yet instantly identifiable sound and an unmatched level of consistency.
This is the first time since his decade old career high-point with MF DOOM, Madvillainy, that Madlib has worked with a rapper truly deserving of his beats. Lib takes full advantage, lacing Gibbs with some of his finest trademark non-EQ’d soul.
It’s a more streamlined set of beats than we’ve heard from Madlib in some time. Though there are the requisite skits, goofy interludes and left-turn feints, he generally plays Piñata pretty straight, which suits the project well. Though Gibbs is technically and lyrically an astounding rapper, he is a little more meat’n’potatoes than much of the backpacker Stones Throw set that Madlib has spent much of his career working with. He’s perfectly complemented by the kind of organic sounding, sunny soul flips and occasional detours in to more street-minded drama that Madlib serves him up here.
It also helps that these are some of the best Madlib beats we’ve heard in a while. Though the gifted producer reigns himself in, he still displays a remarkable versatility on the first handful of tracks alone. The back to basics street-funk of “Scarface”, the soulful string melody and chopped vocals that form the backbone of “Deeper” and the bouncy summer funk of the Danny Brown assisted “High” all come together to demonstrate a total mastery of form. It’s also refreshing to hear a more toned-down style of his at this point; it’s comforting to know that despite his astro-plain traversing journeys, Madlib is still totally comfortable crafting characterful, identifiable loops for rappers to talk their shit over.
Things are all the better given that Freddie Gibbs does far, far more than just talk shit, however. He’s one of those rare gangsta rappers with an abundance of both style and substance. He absolutely attacks everything that Madlib serves up; from the opening bars of “Scarface”, it’s pretty much relentless for the next hour.
Gibbs’ prowess is best exemplified when he raps over the gentler beats of the record. Songs like the loping soul of “Robes” or the aforementioned “Deeper” would have most rappers kicking back and letting their bars breathe, but not Gibbs. He goes in with the same force and technical virtuosity as on the albums harder tracks, stacking seemingly infinite syllables in the pocket while never sounding clumsy, never sacrificing melody, never sounding anything less than slick. He has wit, too: the line “I only think of you on two occasions, that’s when I’m drunk and when I’m blazin’ up” might not sound like much, but wait until you hear the way he delivers it on “Robes”.
He raps well enough here to make Piñata one of the best hip-hop releases of 2014 so far – regardless of content; that he uses Madlib’s canvass to reach a lyrical pinnacle is just the icing on the cake. He spends much of his time going over gangsta tropes but, seemingly energized by beats outside his comfort zone, is constantly finding new ways to twist them, crafting darkly hilarious threats and ruthlessly detailed depictions of street-life.
What elevates Piñata to perhaps Gibbs’ best is the amount that he lets his conscience poke through. It doesn’t happen much, but such an absence just makes it all the more devastating when he does. When he describes his Grandma learning of his lifestyle and calmly states that “she knew I was lying before I even spoke”, it is genuinely affecting; the same goes for “Deeper”, a story of Gibbs’ losing out in love to a “square” in which our protagonist slings criticisms upon himself as much as the woman who “cut him deep.”
Everything comes together on “Thuggin’”, the highlight on an album full of just that. Unquestionably one of hip-hop’s finest recent singles, it sees Madlib looping a hypnotic guitar line and Gibbs’ opining on the activities implied by the tracks title (“it feels so good, and it feels so right”). But late in the song, he uplifts his lyricism to yet another level with an uncompromising examination of both himself and his world:
“’cause in the past / My low-class black ass
Would serve my own fuckin family members.
I hate to say it, ain’t no need to be discreet /
If she don’t cop from me, she get it from a nigga up the street ,
Cause he thuggin’.
And yo she’d probably suck his dick for it /
She turned out so it ain’t shit to turn a trick for it”
That’s the Freddie Gibbs spread all over Piñata; cold and aware of the terrible choices he’s made but forced into a place of self-acceptance amidst the horror surrounding him. Moreover, Gibbs serves as living proof that gangsta rap has yet to exhaust its lyrical material. That he conveys all this with wit, poignancy and incredible flow – all set atop one of the best Madlib-created beat-scapes in a minute – makes this album questionably one of the albums to beat this year.
4.5 out of 5
You can buy Pinata on Amazon.