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Sometimes, it seems like the most important aspect of rap music is the artist’s voice. A great rap voice can define a legend, like The Notorious B.I.G. or Tupac. It can set an emerging artist apart from his or her peers — think Meechie Darko of Flatbush Zombies or early Rick Ross. And it can elevate normally standard fare, turning a one-note project into thrilling cinema, like last year’s seven-song Pusha T project, Daytona.
Freddie Gibbs has one of those great rap voices. There may be other, more technically proficient rappers around. There are plenty of rappers with a broader range of more emotionally resonant topics to talk about. But when it comes to bringing the grit and desperation of his native Gary, Indiana to life, Freddie’s voice is his most potent, compelling weapon.
It’s the most magnetic, gripping aspect of many of his projects, including 2014’s Madlib collaboration, Piñata, so it’s fitting that it’s the standout part of this year’s long-awaited follow-up to that project, Bandana. Between Freddie’s voice and ‘Lib’s quirky sampling sensibilities, the two share a chemistry that elevates the project to become more than the sum of its parts.
Bandana arrives in a much different rap landscape than its predecessor. In 2014, Soundcloud was still primarily where Drake dropped random singles in the middle of the night. Now it’s become known as the primordial birthplace of purist-trolling, South Florida-hailing, punk-rap misfits like Lil Pump, Wifisfuneral, and XXXTentacion. Streaming was not yet the primary form of music consumption. The President seemed like a relatively competent, likeable person who rarely tweeted. To a certain mindset, times were simpler.
Bandana is something of a throwback to that time, a bald-faced appeal to traditionalists who embrace a particular brand of stoic masculinity, and dusty, jazz-sampled beats (and one day we need to discuss the screwy morality of a fanbase that celebrates drug trade, but decries its use when the former basically begets the latter and is arguably a way more sociopathic and destructive activity). While this style of rap has never actually gone away, there’s a certain type of rap fan who always laments its lack on urban radio, as if that type of rap fan actually ever listened to urban radio. It’s straightforward, black coffee rap, for those who won’t talk to you until they’ve had their first cup in the morning.
To that end, the project is a proficient, bold brew, served piping hot in a plain paper cup — no fancy-schmancy sleeve needed. Fred raps about one thing more than any other here: Drugs, and plenty of them. In fact, there is a higher concentration of cocaine-related bars on Bandana than there were on the aforementioned Daytona, according to my new favorite Twitter follow, Hip-Hop By The Numbers.
Unlike his narcotic-obsessed peers, though, Gibbs doesn’t make drug dealing sound very aspirational, glamorous, or lucrative at all. The closest he comes is on single “Crime Pays,” and even then he freights the spoils of victory with the weight of sobering sociopolitical observation: “Diamonds in my chain, yeah, I slang but I’m still a slave.” Even when he takes a dive into relationship material, as he does on “Practice,” he can’t help but swerve back to tales of street life and illicit activity.
The counterbalance to all this darkness, then, is the playfulness with which Madlib selects and chops samples of jazz and soul. There’s a fanciful quality to the loops on tracks like “Giannis” and “Flat Tummy Tea” that doesn’t so much compensate for Gibbs’ punishing bluntness and variable-auto flow and it does provide a backstop for all the bullets to safely land somewhere nobody will actually get killed.
On the sort of more straightforward beats that the gangster movie fare might usually end up, Freddie might fade into the pack. Lord knows there are like 25 new trap rappers seemingly every day spitting the same stuff on beats from an ever-expanding list of producers mimicking the heavy 808 arrangements of Sonny Digital, Southside, TM88, and Metro Boomin. For some rap fans, seeing so many new purveyors of the artform popping up is a little like being a fan of the original Pokemon games and returning to find out there’s an ice cream cone Pokemon now.
But the combination of Madlib’s beats, which seemed reserved for cartoon-y musical weirdos like MF Doom — and that’s a compliment — with Freddie’s from-the-gutter-or-the-mud-take-your-pick rhymes elevates both beyond the limitations of their respective lanes. Without Freddie, Madlib might just be another “low-fi beats to study to” producer — he damn near invented the genre — while Freddie would likely be another gangster rapper lost in the rush.
Where Bandana truly shines, though, is when the pair invites a few more players to their game of one-on-one. “Palmolive” brings in Pusha T himself for a round of cocaine cornhole with Gibbs that finds them seeking ever more elaborate ways to one-up each other’s shockingly creative drug talk, with Killer Mike playing referee. Anderson .Paak is absolutely vicious on “Giannis,” slickly grinning through his own version of Freddie’s powder-fueled fantasies, and “Education” brings the GOATs Black Though and Yasiin Bey through for lyrical gymnastics that may take a few listens to unravel.
There are better rappers than Freddie Gibbs — hello, Black Thought and Yasiin Bey. There are higher-profile producers than Madlib. But when the pair connect, the results can be truly gripping, engaging, and enjoyable. Bandana doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but to its credit, it doesn’t try to. It delivers a standard rap album for fans of convention and then lets its co-stars’ chemistry distinguish it from the rest.
Bandana is out now via Keep Cool/RCA Records. Get it here.