Freddie Gibbs and Madlib play to two very different audiences. The former is a gruff gangster rapper who evokes a thuggish Tupac in the Death Row days; the latter is an experimental rap producer who makes intricate worlds out of niche soul samples. Yet when these two came together for 2014’s sunny ‘Piñata’, something magical happened, with the odd couple producing one of the best ever rap albums about selling cocaine.
But as brilliant as ‘Piñata’ was, it was still a little rough around the edges and there was a sense the pair was still working each other out in the studio. Thankfully any teething issues have been completely ironed out for follow-up ‘Bandana’, which is a tighter, more cohesive album that might just end up being remembered as the best rap album of 2019.
On ‘Bandana’, Gibbs hits another level as a lyricist. He still makes an art out of violent imagery (on the potent ‘Flat Tummy Tea’ he threatens to use a sword to knock “white Jesus” off a horse), but now has developed much more of a philosophical edge, too. Gibbs’ bars, with which he triumphantly talks about going from food stamps to making millions, are inspiring and have a real resilience about them.
There’s a sense Gibbs is making every single lyric count, and that recording these tracks was a cathartic experience after a difficult five years that included being locked up in Europe after being falsely accused of sexual assault. Despite having elite lyricists such as Pusha-T, Killer Mike, Yasiin Bey and Black Thought among the guests, Gibbs never sounds second-best. ‘Bandana’ should mark the moment the Indiana emcee starts to truly be considered as an elite rapper.
The music here is also wildly inventive, with Madlib channeling that raw edge of 1970s soul. The way he flips R.D. Burman’s Bollywood jazz groove Mutki Theme on ‘Education’ is beautiful, inspiring guest Bey to hit ‘Black On Both Sides’ kind of form with a blistering verse that poignantly references the prison industrial complex. ‘Cataracts’, which samples criminally underrated soul singer Norman Whiteside’s grown-up sex anthem Teach Me How, is even better, as Gibbs uses the smooth beat to warn the next generation of rappers to not trust anybody as you “might get fucked by the n****s eating with you”.
One of the best moments here is ‘Half Manne, Half Cocaine’, a thumping trap anthem, filled with sun-drenched synths and dangerous funk. Gibbs hits this beat with cold precision, going in for the kill and threatening to “kiss your wife and then piss on your grave”. You can already picture the mosh pits forming when Gibbs hits the road later this year.
In many ways, ‘Bandana’ feels like this year’s DAYTONA, another hardcore rap album that prioritised experimental soul loops and cutting lyrics about distributing Black Mafia Family level of narcotics. The chemistry between Madlib and Gibbs is perfect and there’s a timelessness to these songs that will make you think of raw black cinematic worlds such as Super Fly or Truck Turner. Gibbs is basically Isaac Hayes if he could spit a hot 16, his union with Madlib proof opposites really do attract.