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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.