The right pairing of an MC and a producer is one of the things that separates great hip-hop from the rest of the stuff. After three years of work and the release of a handful of singles, the full-length collaboration between Freddie Gibbs and Madlib finally saw the light of day in March of last year. It is, undeniably, great hip-hop.
Sometimes receiving equal billing and sometimes not, Madlib has
produced entire albums for a pretty broad range of artists: Talib Kweli (Liberation),
Georgia Anne Muldrow (Seeds), Dudley Perkins (Expressions),
and Guilty Simpson (O.J. Simpson). The albums he produced for
Percee P. (Perseverance) and Strong Arm Steady (In Search of
Stoney Jackson) are particularly strong. While there's no denying
his Renaissance-man status, Madlib does his best work in this role. It's easy to be so impressed with how prolific he is that you overlook how consistent he is. His productions are, as corny as this sounds, magic. They're beautiful morsels that you would hate to see wasted on mediocre rappers.
That's not a concern on Piñata. It's not really a case of Gibbs being more suited to Madlib's production style than other rappers might be; this isn't a Madvillainy situation, where you're hearing two men whose respective aesthetics have been on a collision course for years. In fact, the pairing seems just as unlikely (and ends up being just as perfect) as El-P and Killer Mike. What you're hearing on Piñata is the sound of a rapper who (listen closely, aspiring rappers) seems to actually practice. Madlib makes dense stuff, and it's not snapped to a grid in ProTools. There's a looseness in his work, the kind of expert human musicality that puts him in a camp closer to Ceil Taylor than to Kraftwerk. It would be easy to get lost in (or overshadowed by) these beats, but Gibbs is so precise that his interactions with the backdrop sounds effortless and controlled. That precision comes from work.
Madlib explained in Rolling
Stone interview: "That's what usually happens: I let 'em record
what they want, then I add stuff as needed after that... I don't have
time to sit there and coach somebody that just already knows what to do,
and that's the kind of people I usually work with… I don't want to sit
there like a babysitter."
Freddie Gibbs does not need a babysitter. His reputation as one of the most reliable rappers today is earned. That being said, there's no diplomatic way to say this, so I'll just level with you: I really can't relate to the lyrics Freddie Gibbs writes. At all. I do appreciate the craft, however. What we get here is a rich, widescreen story whose
protagonist confidently carries his frustration and cynicism through a bleak, calloused world. These songs paint a vivid picture.
Gibbs from Gary, Indiana. Have you ever driven through (or near) Gary Indiana? That smell will forever haunt me, and it alone is enough to make Piñata's chief narrator sympathetic.