Wednesday, April 5, 2017

album review: 'you only live 2wice' by freddie gibbs

If you think you had a bad year in 2016, I think Freddie Gibbs might have you beat. While on tour in France in early summer, he was arrested and later extradited to face sexual assault charges in Austria. And while I immediately got the sinking feeling I get whenever an artist I otherwise like is accused in cases like this, the more I dug into it the more pieces did not seem to come together. This was not a R.Kelly-esque case where evidence and testimony was willfully ignored, and the reason charges were thrown out in the end were because of a lack of evidence - charges, I should add, that were only pursued when the girl came forward eight months after the alleged crime and with no extradition sought from the United States. And considering Austria has an extradition treaty with the United States, it looked sketchy as hell that they had to nab him in France first.

But more than that, even though I don't claim to know Gibbs the allegations didn't make a lot of sense, even from the persona he put forward in his music. Yeah, he's a gangsta rapper, I don't doubt that drugs have been sold and guns have been fired, but especially if you go off of his last two records - and the fact that he was planning to settle down with his long-time girlfriend and infant son - Gibbs always seemed like he played by more of a hard code of honor and seemed to give women a fair amount of respect. Again, you really can't make judgments from music alone - it's not like anyone thought Chris Brown would hit Rihanna before 2009 - but the rapper who made songs like 'Deeper', 'Shame', and 'Insecurities' would engage in that sort of behavior.

So why even bring it up? Well, Gibbs was planning on making a point of addressing it directly on his newest project - which reminded me a lot of what Michael Gira did on that most recent Swans project when allegations were thrown at him - and from the sounds of it, he wasn't about to hold back on getting a second chance at freedom. Gibbs is the sort of guy who would fight tooth and nail to clear his name and set the record straight, and considering we're dealing with one of the most ruthlessly effective gangsta rappers in the industry, I was expecting this newest project - kept trim and focused at eight songs - to hit hard. So does Freddie Gibbs manage to clear his name with You Only Live 2wice?

Well, yeah, I'd say he does enough in this department - but what gets frustrating is that it's pretty much the only reason I'd really recommend checking this out. Without a doubt this feels like a transitory project - something Gibbs dropped quickly to satiate his fanbase while being out of the game in 2016 and working on that Pinata follow-up with Madlib - but while it serves as a fine enough update, as a project it's nowhere near as compelling and sharp as I know he's capable. In other words, Gibbs might feel like he's gotten a second chance, but it's the sort of rebirth that both feels like more of the same and not quite deserving the same level of fanfare.

Well okay, that's probably not entirely fair - mostly because Freddie Gibbs is still a rapper that I like a fair bit. His flow is authoritative but expressive, he can get melodic enough to handle his hooks while never sounding soft, and that's before you take into account that he's got bars that seem to run on for miles, in flows that can kick into double time almost effortlessly. That said, you can definitely tell that Gibbs may have taken a few shortcuts when putting together his rhymes this time, because there are more than a few places where he's rhyming words or indeed entire phrases with themselves when he really doesn't need to, like on the second verse of the otherwise great closing track 'Homesick'. And that's not counting how while Gibbs might be one of the few rappers who could make a slurred or mumbling delivery palatable, it's still not his best lane and the added multi-tracking and backing vocal crooning can feel a little unnecessary.

And speaking of unnecessary material, let's talk about content. Now as I already implied, Gibbs is easily most compelling here when he's actually talking about what happened in 2016 and the aftermath of that mess. It's why 'Crushed Glass', the lead-off single and the track that most directly engages with the charges, is easily the most compelling, not just because facing the reality of prison clearly does cast a shadow on Gibbs, but also because there is an element of guilt there creeping through - you get the impression he always expected to wind up in jail, but not for something he didn't do, and not with both a real relationship and his infant daughter waiting outside. Which, of course, makes things awkward when across most of the rest of the album he's referencing side girls along side brand names and cocaine dealing on songs like 'Amnesia' - yes, I get it's part of the lifestyle, but it can't help but make some of the emotional arc feel disingenuous, especially when that's the most compelling and distinct parts of the project. And of course when he gets out he does slip back towards the drug trade, but it's very telling how much lonelier and alien it's feeling to Gibbs now, highlighted in the pretty damn funny outro segment on '20 Karat Jesus' that I could swear sounds a little like Killer Mike but also the darker side on 'Alexys', which even takes steps to show his growing distance from the stereotypes associated with mainstream hip-hop... which he unfortunately shows plenty of affection for later on. And it's the lack of consistency that bothers me, more because Gibbs is a good enough storytelling that he doesn't need to fall back into default genre content, especially when he's got such a knack for detail. Hell, 'Homesick' proves this, not just in the loss of his uncle while he was in prison and how his old partners in crime have drifted away, leaving him still watched by the cops and alone, but even down to the details of how he couldn't read any of the books while he was in jail in Austria, so his wife visited, brought books, and stood by him regardless of the charges, something that really does seem to move him, especially as so many have left him behind.

Hell, I just wish that more of the record hit those deeper emotional notes in the content, especially as the production... well, okay, I would not say I'm blown away, but it certainly fits Gibbs' content and flows. And while I really can't say it's as textured or colourful as what the beats that Madlib has given Gibbs in the past, there is some melancholic sparkle to many of these beats that contains a fair amount of melody against some sharper snares and textured bass beats, even if certain points can feel a tad more dank and watery than they need. '20 Karat Jesus' is a fine example - before the beat switch we get heavy bass against cascades of chimes and this watery fragment, but when it switches into swells of gospel and a slightly more flexible bassline, it feels a little more natural against Gibbs' authoritative flow. Similar case for the old-school glitter of the sample on 'Alexys', or the hollow guitar and fluttering strings of 'Crushed Glass' against the sharper trap snare, or the dry fizz of the drums against the desaturated mix on 'Phone Lit' that gets even bleaker against the hollow pianos on 'Homesick'. Compare to the dank, almost claustrophobic feel of the watery vocal samples and cracking trap beat of 'Dear Maria' and it can't help but feel thinner and carrying less gravitas than what Gibbs carries at his best - telling, given that this production often most matches the most conventional content we see on this project.

But as a whole... man, I wish I liked this more, or it felt more consistent, and it's not like I don't have records like Pinata or Shadow Of A Doubt to prove Gibbs can indeed deliver in those categories. Coupled with feeling shorter and less substantial overall than I was hoping... yeah, I'm thinking a very strong 6/10 and a recommendation, but more for Gibbs fans, or someone looking for a quick taster before diving into meatier records. I'm confident that Gibbs has something coming down the pipe that'll have more meat on it, but as for now... eh, it's worth a listen, but probably not many more after.

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