Monday, November 30, 2015

album review: 'shadow of a doubt' by freddie gibbs

If we were to flash back to about eighteen months ago, before the release of the collaboration project between Freddie Gibbs and Madlib titled Pinata, there would be some that probably didn't care all that much. As much as Gibbs had accumulated respect in the underground for being a hard-edged and reasonably insightful gangsta rapper, he never really stood out as much as some of his contemporaries outside of his refusal to cater to pop tastes and his authoritative voice. And sure, Madlib was bound to give him great production, but that can only go so far - sure, the lead-off singles had been impressive, but would they be enough to put Gibbs back on the map?

Well, to the majority of critics it certainly was, because Pinata was a massive step up not just for Madlib delivering a great selection of colourful old-school production, but Gibbs as well. His wordplay and rapping technique was the strongest it had ever been, and his willingness to show more of a thoughtful picture of gangsta rap gave his pictures a ton of personality. He wasn't so much treading new ground as he was delving deeper and subverting traditional archetypes. For me, it was easily one of the best hip-hop albums of 2014, and thus set some high expectations for a follow-up.

And I'll admit that I was concerned. For one, the guest list was a lot less impressive: where Pinata had Scarface, Raekwon, Danny Brown, Ab-Soul, Earl Sweatshirt, and a host of other spitters, Shadow Of A Doubt looked a lot more sparse. Sure, there was Black Thought, and E-40 was bound to be entertaining, but Tory Lanez and Gucci Mane? As much as I like and respect Freddie Gibbs, I was concerned about a possible regression: did that happen?

Ehh... yes and no. I'm not going to say Shadow Of A Doubt is better or even equal to Pinata - it's not, but it's not just because Madlib was replaced with a slew of different producers; the content and presentation has shifted a bit as well, and it's definitely debatable how well it all works. Because even though Gibbs is one of the most technically solid and ambitious gangsta rappers in the game right now, I'm not exactly wild about some of his artistic choices on this album to follow current mainstream trends, especially when they can detract from his skills as an MC.

I should explain, and the best place to start would be Freddie Gibbs himself. Let me make this clear, while there is the occasional flow that can feel a bit lazy from a rhyming point of view, Gibbs has a knack for authoritative and potent flows that might not feel as smooth as they were on Pinata but are no less immediately recognizable. His baritone is already commanding without needing to sound gritty, and the fact that he drops more into his impressive double time is only a positive. And yet here he augments his flow even further by bringing not just new cadences but more of a melodic delivery. Now I'm of a few minds on this because Gibbs approaches this pseudo sing-rapping in a few different ways, with arguably the best case coming on 'Careless' where the added melody is anchored in the multi-tracking - it can blur his delivery a bit and there are tracks where his tone isn't as smooth and crisp as I'd like, but considering the increased focus on hooks on these tracks, it's actually quite likeable. On the other hand, there are points where he blatantly piles on pitch-shifting and Autotune, the worst case being the cluttered 'Basketball Wives' where he raps about 'slam-dunking that hoe'... look, dude, even despite the realistic grime of your lifestyle, you've got more class than that.

It doesn't help matters that some of his guest stars indulge in a similar brand of douchebaggery, the worst case coming from ManMan Savage who seems to be constantly slipping off the beat on 'Packages' which features a choppy hook that would sound better coming from Migos than Freddie Gibbs. And of course there's Gucci Maine cutting back his energy to rap about constantly screwing 10s... and yet for some reason he wants to screw their friends now too to complete being a hedonistic tool. At least E-40 can do better with a more broadly comic delivery, but on a track with a pretty smooth vibe, you'd think they'd be better. And then there's Tory Lanez doing his best Travi$ Scott impression on the luxury porn of 'Mexico', but Gibbs' flow is excellent even as the content doesn't rise to much. Where we actually do get more insight is courtesy of Black Thought on 'Extradite', tightly focused on why people would want to hustle or kill when the system and cops are crooked and Gibbs is trying to put food on the table for not just his wife but his family.

And if we're looking for areas where this record really shines, it's when Gibbs gets more serious and addresses the increasing toll balancing his hustle and his newfound success. It's one of the reasons I really do like Gibbs' approach to gangsta rap - it never feels embellished or stylized to amp up tension, mostly because Gibbs doesn't shy away from including the very real struggle and danger of his life, which does plenty. More importantly, the framing always places him in an honestly ambiguous light, and he doesn't shy away from the consequences that'll hold when he lands in LA county jail or sleeps in his car to get by - in other words, of the many hip-hop albums to quote The Wire, this is one of the few that can earn it. His mother throws him out and yet will still try to cover him even as she shouldn't. Gibbs talks about streams of women with increased fame and yet he focuses more on marriage and how he doesn't want the same horrid lifestyle for his daughter or wife, and why he feels insecure in his success when all he wants is their attention. He brings up his own addictions - 'is you a dope fiend or a dope boy' - in laced joints that he can't even pass to his friends, friends that he feels he has to support in running drugs even as he wants to step away from it. And of course he talks about how his increased fame led to the attempt on his life last year - and how he knows it was a friend who targeted him, and how the knives are coming, if they haven't already. And thus when Gibbs poses the question to the audience on 'Forever And A Day' who will stick with him if he falls, the question holds a much more loaded edge than when Kendrick asked something similar on To Pimp A Butterfly; because of how real Gibbs' crimes feel, it gives the listener a measure of culpability having heard them.

And yet even with all that... the content does feel thinner than on Pinata, and it's a number of factors why. Part of it is the increased focus on choruses and hustling trap anthems that are light on unique detail, but I reckon a larger part of it is the instrumentation and production. Now it's far from bad - the groove-heavy swell of 'Rearview', the George Michael sample on 'Careless' that anchors a great hook, the dusty lo-fi drums on 'Extradite', the minor synths over the heavy cymbals on 'Lately', the frigid synths on the album closer that eventually build into enormous swell, and especially that piano line on 'Forever And A Day', all of these are excellent - but at the same time this record is missing the sense of smooth organic flavour that I loved so much coming from Pinata, and strikes me as a bit of a better fit for his vocal tone. It's certainly better than some of the greasy trap synths he goes over here, with probably the worst being the bass-heavy smear of 'Packages' or the cluttered oiliness of 'Basketball Wives'. The larger issue is that even many of the good melodies begin to run together a bit, moody keyboard loops blurred over with trap beats and solid if not particularly impressive bass lines. And, just like with Pinata, it might run a little long for its own damn good - considering how strong so many of the hooks are, Gibbs could have chopped out a few of the more ignorant bangers and the record might have been stronger as a whole.

But I'm still going to recommend this album, if only because this is the sort of smart, realistic without needing to be stylized gangsta rap that I wish we heard more of these days. I definitely appreciate Freddie Gibbs taking some risks with this record sonically - the sing-rap actually clicks at a few points, and while I might prefer his more introspective and conscious side, the guy's got a hell of a way around a hook. As such, I'm giving this album an extremely strong 7/10 and definitely a recommendation if you're looking for a killer slice of mostly forward thinking gangsta rap, definitely check this out - you won't regret it.

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