A couple weeks back, I developed an insatiable craving for fried chicken from Harold’s Chicken Shack. Which was strange to me, because I’ve never even been to Harold’s. But after listening to Piñata, I had become possessed by this strangely lucid notion of what a six-piece combo from the Chicago chicken joint would taste like. So I took some chicken tenders and a handful of french fries, wedged them between two pieces of white bread, slathered the whole affair in hot sauce, and did my best to satisfy this strange, synesthetic craving that had taken ahold of me. And you know what? Somewhere between the salt and the grease, between that dulcet Madlib sample and Gibbs’ combustion cadence, it tasted pretty much like Piñata told me it would.
Indeed, much like my abstracted interpretation of a Harold’s chicken sandwich, Piñata sits at the beautifully uncanny nexus of reality and fantasy. The album straddles the bullet-proof partition separating the historic and the surreal, the gritty and the fanciful, the Hi-Def lucidity of cable news and the lurid film-reel stutter of blaxploitation — the improbable progeny of both hip-hop’s most playful and inventive producer on the one hand and the rising star of gangsta rap on the other. It’s a collaboration that never should have worked. But it does. And after 10 years, I think we finally have the next Madvillainy.
Piñata, the fruit of Madlib’s three-year collaboration with rapper Freddie Gibbs, is one of the most refreshing, inventive hip-hop albums I’ve heard since Madlib and MF Doom teamed up a decade ago and released arguably the best hip-hop album of its decade. Like Madvillainy before it, Piñata is one of those elusive albums that manages to transfix the listener in an almost narcotic state of rapt serenity. It’s that same breezy sunset nicotine rush you get while listening to Donuts or Since I Left You — that feeling of melting in your seat as every molecule of air becomes sensuously tactile. It’s the type of experience Madlib and many of the musicians at Stones Throw have spent their careers parsing out. And when it works, the result is nothing short of sublime.
And yet, Piñata is decidedly not Madvillainy. On the contrary, while the two albums may share Madlib’s unmistakable imprint and guiding vision, the introduction of Gibbs in the place of Doom has made for a very different, perhaps even more interesting project.
See, Madlib — like his spiritual sibling J Dilla — has always been a producer’s producer. In an era when the rapper behind the mic all too often gets top billing by default, hijacking generic beats and shoving their producers to the sidelines of the liner notes, Madlib has spent his massively prolific career crafting beats so intricate they stand entirely on their own. Where other producers merely sample, Madlib crafts Avalanches-esque sound collages so dense they’re almost unrappable. (It’s no wonder then that Madlib’s rapper persona, Quasimoto, has consistently been his own most successful collaborator.)
In retrospect, this is why the Madvillain project felt like lightning in a jar. Even 10 years later, it’s hard not to feel that MF Doom might have been the only rapper crazy enough to match Madlib’s special brand of reclusive brilliance. After all, how many other rappers would have messed with a track based entirely around an accordion loop? Or interludes from Prohibition-era radio serials? More than any rap album before or since, Madvillainy was the sound of two musicians on the fringe matching each other blow for blow in a balletic bout of inspired, left-field brilliance.
If Madvillain was the result of complete artistic synchronization, Madlib and Gibbs have somehow mastered the sound of coordinated disunity. Indeed, at first glance, few MCs would seem less suited for a Madlib partnership than Gibbs. Where Madlib takes as his sources of inspiration the jazz standards of the Blue Note catalog and Alain Goraguer’s soundtrack to the avant-garde animated film La Planète Sauvage, Gibbs takes his from the world of drug deals and urban decay. A native of Gary, Indiana — a city decimated by the collapse of the steel industry — Gibbs appears to belong to an older era of rap music: an era when rap was still a platform for articulating real social and economic horrors and defending one’s turf, both culturally and literally. Gibbs is in many ways an anachronism, a rapper more in the tradition of The Wu-Tang Clan and Tupac than in that of Jay Z and Kanye West — which is to say, more concerned with watching his neck than with watching the throne.
Understood this way, the stylistic difference between Piñata and Madvillainy becomes quite stark. While Gibbs is every bit as lyrically dexterous as Doom was (and in all likelihood just as insane), the two rappers approach their roles as MC from very different angles. Where Doom handled his verses with a decidedly poetic flair and frequently indulged in streams of Dadaist free association and wordplay, the closest Gibbs gets to indulging in this sort of silliness is a two-minute drunken interlude (complete with an a capella TLC cover) at the end of “Robes.” Case in point: take a look at the music video for “Thuggin’.” MF Doom may have been the self-proclaimed supervillain of rap, but it’s hard to imagine Metal Face gunning down a rival dealer with an AK or selling cocaine out of the slums. If Doom was a gangster in the Saturday morning cartoon sense, Gibbs is the kind that comes on HBO after the kids go to sleep.
The finished product is brilliantly, beautifully schizophrenic. It’s no great surprise that the two artists made the album in almost total isolation and from opposite ends of the country. While Madvillain resulted from a single studio session, Madlib and Gibbs never set foot in the studio together. (As the story goes, Madlib sent Gibbs a catalog of unused beats, Gibbs chose his favorites and wrote the verses, and finally sent the product back to Madlib for the final touches.) And yet, when you finally press play, the thousand-mile distance between Gary and Los Angeles collapses in a glorious supernova outside of space and time. Perhaps this is how “Lakers” and “Knicks” feel like neither California nor New York, but rather some impossible spiritual superposition of the two. Or how “Shame” manages to capture the feeling of closing time at some supernatural diner where Dilla is always on the decks and the donuts are on the house. Or how “Thuggin’” — the very first track to come out of the collaboration — feels as fresh in 2014 as it did when it first dropped almost three years ago.
And “Harold’s”? Well, I guess it sounds something like a handful of chicken tenders, fries, and hot sauce on white bread: a narcotic combination of sodium and grease and a liberal slathering of playful fantasy. So what if it’s a bit off, a bit unreal? Fuck real. This is something even better.