Freddie Gibbs & Madlib Bandana

[ESGN/Keep Cool/Madlib Invazion/RCA; 2019]

Styles: hip-hop
Others: Mobb Deep, Slum Village, Madvillain, Scarface

By creating new works, artists fit another piece into the vast, swirling mosaic of stylistic development that links all compositions into one staggeringly complex, interconnected whole. An intricate matrix of factors determines where their piece will fall, but the artist has limited agency in choosing the general proximity and engages (knowingly or unknowingly) in conversation with nearby works. Temporality is perhaps the most extant channel through which these conversations are held, which is to say that artists can choose (or even refuse to choose) whether to evoke the past, present, future, or some combination thereof by means of method and style. As such, the mosaic exists in flux, constantly reinventing and borrowing from itself.

For any artist, the risk of being too contemporary is making something that seems trendy and contrived, while the risk of being too traditional is making something derivative and boring. There’s a middle ground between the two, however, that explores the present via convention. With a combination of skill and luck, sometimes an artist (or artists) stumbles upon a crossroads, where different methodologies, styles, and eras intersect, breathing into each other to create something familiar yet novel.

As much happened when Freddie Gibbs and Madlib, after releasing a few underappreciated EPs as MadGibbs, collaborated to make 2014’s Piñata. When the project was announced in a 2014 press release, Gibbs described Piñata as “a gangster Blaxploitation film on wax.” He went on to explain how he’d show others “how to rap again,” and how “everybody else is going to fall in line” following his example. For his part, Madlib excepted himself in like fashion, describing his beats as not “fully quantized… it has more of a human feel […] you have to be the type of rapper, like MF Doom or Freddie, who can catch that, or else you’ll be sounding crazy.” Gibbs was in it to prove himself as a rapper, and he would do so with an album’s worth of beats that defied the trap productions that were (and still are) so dominant.

Madlib and Gibbs felt like an unlikely pairing from the beginning. Here was a tried and true gangster rapper, whose most prominent work was 2012’s Baby Face Killa, an album that overflowed with trap beats and the type of rapping you’d expect to accompany them. It was a DJ Drama-hosted tape that was worth listening to, but not particularly noteworthy. On the other hand, Madlib was a legendary left-of-center producer whose prolific catalogue included his debut collaboration with DOOM, Madvillainy, which would become a staple in dozens of year-end lists and was a far cry from gangster rap. As mentioned before, Gibbs and Madlib had some EPs under their belts, but those weren’t what Gibbs was known for. I remember hearing about Piñata and judging it a risky move, curious as to whether a full-length collaboration would produce something worthwhile.

Of course, Piñata ended up being a triumph, with Madlib once again finding a rapper who was at ease over his sample-heavy, erratic production. During a year when Atlanta was continuing to cement itself as the production capital of hip-hop, Young Thug was just beginning to make waves, and the XXL Freshman Class included the likes of Rich Homie Quan and Kevin Gates, Piñata was an album unlike any other, offering something of a warm nostalgia for past eras of gangster rap, all without seeming uninspired or bitter. It was an unexpected, refreshing intersection of styles, with an approach that no other duo could hope to replicate.

Bandana, the much anticipated follow-up and second release in a planned trilogy, sees Gibbs and Madlib taking these intersections and expanding them, digging deeper into the chasms they opened in 2014. They appear even more acclimated to each other’s respective talents, and it’s apparent that their symbiosis has grown more natural. As might be expected, Madlib invokes the familiar comfort of boom-bap beats, skits, the hiss of tape/old vinyl, and record scratches, fashioning his unique expression of self using a dated, reminiscent form. In 2019, when the forward-looking is nearly standard in hip-hop at large (even moreso than in 2014), it’s of no small import that Madlib has made waves with beats that wouldn’t be out of place in the 90s. To be fair, there are moments when Madlib abandons his Beat Konducta style for something more of-the-moment, most notably on the first half of “Half Manne Half Cocaine,” but the second half of the song sees a drastic instrumental change before returning to a more Madlib-esque style.

It’s worth noting, too, how much rap itself has changed since 2014 (let alone since Madlib first emerged in the late 90s), especially in light of Gibbs’s initial claim that one of his goals on Piñata was to show others “how to rap again.” Tradition and reverence for past greats have been a steady undercurrent in hip-hop since at least the 90s, when rap first became a tour de force in the lexicon of American music and culture. But rap has enjoyed something of a renaissance (or at least a recalibration) in the 2010s with the emergence of genre-bending, convention-defying, divisive rappers like Lil B, Spaceghostpurrp, Chief Keef, Young Thug, Awful Records, and so on. These artists and their affiliates have normalized experimentation and subversion, replacing an age when “best rapper alive” was still a prized crown. That title was, of course, measured by lyrical prowess (the “alive” being a qualifier pointing to the sacrosanct forefathers of lyrical hip-hop, Tupac and Biggie, whom it’s sacrilege to place oneself above) — a metric that now seems to be waning in importance.

Ten years after Lil Wayne’s seminal No Ceilings — an album that helped render “best rapper alive” a household refrain — and five years after Piñata, the emphasis on lyrical potency has declined even further. Fashion, one’s producer(s), and/or online persona(s) are just a few factors that are now just as if not more valuable than lyrical stamina, each working to make or break a rapper. As far as words themselves go, catchy phrases and easily meme-able expressions (a lá Playboi Carti, Lil Uzi Vert, Migos, Lil Pump, etc.) tend to have more appeal than extended narrative and poetic wordplay. Rappers now have more channels and creative tools at their disposal to express themselves, and as such can (and often do) have appeal for reasons outside lyrical mastery. Indeed, in a post-Lil B, post-Chief Keef, post-Yeezus, post-Barter 5 world, there is a lesser emphasis on words themselves than on a personified artistic vision.

Thus is the allure of an album like Bandana, which in 2019 stands out as one of few rap albums that unapologetically embodies a revivalist form via Madlib’s production and Gibbs’s flow. The latter’s delivery is stylistically reminiscent of 1990s and 2000s gangster rap: his verses are clear and concise; his narratives are immersive yet easy to follow; and the moods and feelings his verses convey are immediately present. He switches style and rhythm often, completely at ease floating over Madlib’s beats. Like Piñata before it, Bandana’s lyrics sketch out a smorgasbord of street life communicated with an air of despondency and abandon. Anger is there, too, especially when Gibbs invokes the oppressive political forces that have made street life what it is, the character of his lines more NWA and Scarface than Kendrick Lamar.

If we understand rapping ability from a conventional perspective, then, Gibbs might have a point when he says “Top 5 rapper alive” at the end of “Flat Tummy Tea.” But what does it mean to have a claim as “best rapper” in 2019? The “Top 5” trope has been rapped about so often in the past few years that it’s almost become a meaningless — even irrelevant — phrase. Mastery is no longer the ultimate criterion in gauging a rap record’s quality or impact, because the designation “best rapper” simply entails a wider range of criteria. I’m skeptical of such conversations, though, because they’re often accompanied by premature/unwarranted invocations of the term “classic,” an unproductive strain of thought that, as Andrew Nosnitsky presciently illustrates here, promotes a “limiting view of hip-hop.” Instead, I’d like to emphasize the appropriateness of Gibbs’s flow for Madlib’s productions. It’s only natural that a more traditional lyrical approach would have been more comfortable footing over a style Madlib perfected in the early 2000s (a more experimental, less verbose rapper would likely have a difficult time navigating the beats here, which is perhaps why names like Yasiin Bey, Black Thought, and Pusha T landed on the features list). What ultimately makes this project stand out is not Gibbs’s raps or Madlib’s beats, but rather the sum total of their creative relationship and the ways in which their creative faculties complement one another.

The day after Bandana dropped, Madlib took to Twitter to explain that he had made all of Bandana’s beats on an iPad. Whether or not that’s true (or even particularly impressive), it’s notable that Madlib finds it worth mentioning, as doing so emphasizes his refusal to abandon a dying style even as new technology threatens to suffocate it. In a follow-up tweet a couple days later, he went on: “I’m gonna keep doin my thing till i’m 90. i’m gonna keep getting better. That iPad remark was just to say stop making excuses - use a tape deck if necessary. Technology is what you make it.” Despite his temerity, he’s not wrong. The way an album ends up sounding is largely a function of the ideology that precedes its creation, the tools nothing more than a conduit for that vision. Bandana, like Piñata before it, strikes me as deliberate and calculated, a realization of style that makes use of both artists’ backgrounds and techniques.

The vision here is clear enough: a project that sees the marriage of two artists of disparate backgrounds combining their full range of talents. Gibbs’s gangster rap braggadocio might have landed on production more reminiscent of trap music, and Madlib’s beats could have easily fallen under a rapper more reminiscent of DOOM; instead, they paired with each other to make a type of project seldom heard these days. As such, it’s difficult to predict where Bandana will settle into the aforementioned mosaic — and it’s probably pointless to try. Bandana continues a conversation not only between eras and between styles, but also between Freddie Gibbs and Madlib, both of whom continue to carve a path wholly their own — with little regard for what lays outside of it.

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