Review: Freddie Gibbs & Madlib – Piñata

A quick review of Freddie Gibbs’ career to date suggests a few bum hands in terms of his luck. Signed to Interscope in 2006 and dropped a year later due to changes in the label’s management, he has since grown a following through mixtape releases, culminating in studio album ESGN released last year. If anything, it demonstrates a determined soul, and one committed to having a voice in an over-crowded and often indistinctive genre. Thankfully, Piñata asserts precisely why Gibbs is a voice to be heeded, offering an excellent showcase of his talent as a gruff street commentator.

For those who have followed the ubiquitous stream of releases from the Madlib Invazion label, Madlib’s production on Piñata won’t come as any surprise. It seems simplistic on first listen, his tendency is to grab one loop and supplement it with only the minimalist of augmentations; however, where Madlib stands out above his imitators is his ear, and ability to transform a few seconds of snatched music into something enthralling.

Its closest musical counterpart would be the early production efforts of RZA, who demonstrated the same ability to re-purpose samples into striking examples of hip-hop’s potential to renew the latent energies of the past.

The keening melody line on Deeper is atypical of a Madlib beat, with what sounds like a pitched-up violin cutting through the murky lo-fidelity bass and drums. The producer’s capacity to make the familiar sound strange is something that has served him well on both his work with MF DOOM (Madvillain) and with his Quasimoto alias. On Deeper, it skews Gibbs’ rap with poignancy, no mean feat considering the casual misogyny that constitutes the lyrics’ content. Harold’s features a soul guitar loop that energises Gibbs’ cadence, lending the whole track a propellant swagger.

The interplay between Gibbs’ voice and Madlib’s beats is the most striking thing about Piñata. Given Madlib’s aversion to quantised beats, it is a particular credit to Gibbs’ adaptability that his contributions don’t feel awkward or misjudged at any point. Thuggin’ serves up a prime example of this, he slows and speeds up as the loop slides along, at one point slipping from double-time to triple-time and managing to sound coolly assertive in doing so. Compare it to Danny Brown’s charismatic but hysterical guest spot on High and you begin to sense why Gibbs is so revered by his contemporaries.

Piñata will probably not attract the same devoted following as some other Madlib collaborations, but it’ll be the listener’s loss for the most part. Gibbs may not be an innocent, his raps are laced with a kind of world weary outlaw spirit, but he has a vital and technically impressive voice. Equally, at a time when sample-based music is becoming increasingly costly and difficult to clear, it is heartening to hear a producer so able to engage and produce new ideas out of the technique. Madlib’s determined and hyper-productive approach may feel a little daunting at times, but it will often turn up gems like Piñata, examples of why both he and his chosen collaborators remain such a persistent and important presence in hip-hop.

Words: Andrew Spragg

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