Wednesday, July 3, 2019

album review: 'bandana' by freddie gibbs & madlib

I'm genuinely curious how many people remembered the narratives surrounding Freddie Gibbs five years ago.

Because while he was respected by those in the know, you could make the argument his profile had suffered or been marginalized by the split with Jeezy and his debut album ESGN not really hitting as strongly as it should after a string of well-received mixtapes. And while there had been some build-up for his collaboration with Madlib through a couple of scattered singles, there was considerable skepticism, because Madlib does not make easy beats to ride, and his sample-heavy, claustrophobic, and occasionally lo-fi production did not match anything close to the trap for which Gibbs was known.

And while hindsight is 20/20 and in the wake of Pinata being one of the best rap albums of the decade it's easy to say that Freddie Gibbs had just been criminally underrated, I think it's important to highlight how much he has stepped up his skills in the past five years. Not only did his lyricism improve by leaps and bounds but so did his flow and structure and command of melody, and while his past couple projects I've been lukewarm to positive on - the one I didn't review was Fetti and while I was cool on that, it's more because I'm not really a big fan of Curren$y - the hype for his return to working with Madlib was considerable, especially considering the guest talent he was recruiting along the way. Pusha-T was obvious - they play in the same lane and the combination was bound to kick ass - but getting Killer Mike, Anderson .Paak, Mos Def and Black Thought too? As I had to say in my midyear review, the fact I had not covered this album was a considerable asterisk I had to add to the list, because I just hadn't heard enough of it in time to process and think it over. But now I found the time, and the moment is here: what did Gibbs and Madlib deliver on Bandana?

So I genuinely wish I could come in here and say that Freddie Gibbs and Madlib earned their asterisk on my midyear list as one of the best of 2019 - hell, to I think a lot of audiences he probably has, especially given the critical acclaim he's received within hip-hop circles. And yet even some of that praise has been receiving qualifications, most notably in comparison to Pinata. And that's what makes talking about Bandana so tough for me and why I started this review describing the arc that led to Pinata's release - because no, it's not better than Pinata but would only exist in this form because of it. More than that, Bandana constantly feels like it's in Pinata's shadow to some extent, in production and in the content that sound more like they're trying to streamline and capture more of Gibbs' more straightforward appeal now than finding the deeper layers of texture, focus and insight that made the best moments of Pinata so expansive and compelling. And while I really want to call this a great release... well, we'll get to it.

And look, given the only reason this exists is because of how much hype and success came from Pinata, comparisons are inevitable, but I do want to highlight something that put that project above the coke dealer gangsta rap that Gibbs had built his career off: maturity. That's not saying Gibbs would compromise his sense of humor or flair, but that he was willing to see not just from his perspective but from the drug fiends he sold from, his family around him, and even try to give more humanity to the women in his life, both his partner and side chicks. It wasn't as ruthlessly dark as Pusha-T's brand of coke rap, but just as weighty in assessing the blood-stained consequences, and the textured, soulful palette of the production only intensified that weight. And while Gibbs has only further developed as an MC with more flexible and melodic flows complimenting his thick baritone, I'll admit my biggest draw to Bandana would be seeing where he'd take that more complex flavour while still reminiscing on the messy balance between dealing, gang violence, and his flourishing music career. And to Gibbs' credit, he is aiming bigger: where there was a more laid-back, thoughtful vibe to his last project, there's absolutely a greater sense of urgency to Bandana, and the political subtext that ran through the margins of previous projects has moved to outright text. And while you get the obvious parallels between the current administration and the Reagan years, it's interesting just how much Gibbs highlights how the Obama administration's gains were so easily rolled back and fractured, highlighting just how much the system has failed them. More than that, while he references methods of how black men have found success in America - and then added the qualifier of how there should be more ways - he finds himself more interested in how they've bucked those systems to assert power: it's not surprising that we get references to Allan Iverson's legendary 'we're talking about practice' monologue on the song of the same name. Of course, the loaded response to that is how the ream of crimes that Gibbs professes to commit across this project would put him on the wrong side of the law, drug war or not, and while he's willing to call out his own hypocrisy and the failures of his crew and friends to keep him on a better path, justified institutional distrust isn't a good enough excuse to put anti-vax bars on 'Palmolive' with Pusha-T and Killer Mike, the latter who is only given a hook; real blown opportunity there! 

And yeah, Pusha-T's verse is great in showing how Obama did open those doors and recognize the power and cultural weight - in fact, across the board I'd argue the guest performances are solid, from the darker drug violence from Anderson .Paak on 'Giannis' that's one of the best songs here to 'Education' with Mos Def and Black Thought showing both the history and present day systemic oppression leading to Gibbs highlighting how much he's a product of that world - but there has been a notable shift in the slant and worldview from Gibbs on the project. This is where it's worth mentioning that Freddie Gibbs did join the Nation Of Islam in 2017, and newfound religion does touch the content in a few notable ways, from the more practical scene of where he's still served pork in prison, to the metaphysical, where he's all the more aware of how damned he is by his vices and actions and that deep-seated regret persists through some of the most impacting moments on the album. But the Nation Of Islam has been tied to the anti-vax movement in recent months, and it's not the first of weird moral contradictions that saturate this project: on 'Cataracts' Gibbs says he doesn't really care about people crossdressing and experimenting with their sexuality - more pragmatic in a 'who am I to judge, I'm damned anyway' lane - but then he'll diss 21 Savage for doing the 'slut walk' with Amber Rose on 'Education' or laugh at cheap gay jokes made at Jeezy's expense on 'Crime Pays'. And again, Gibbs is a smart man who clearly cares about his daughter - she's probably the strongest moral weight for him on this album, beyond the self-awareness he clearly does have, especially on the final third of the project - so while I'm forgiving of moral complexity and understand where the roots of the contradictions might be, it does not mean I have to give him a pass on them, especially when I have the lingering impression that a few of these songs were not afforded greater consideration. And that's not just me saying that, that can come from Gibbs himself where at the end of tracks he'll leave adlibs and quips in about the recording, providing Madlib doesn't juxtapose a sample that seems to reinforce drilling into his own lane instead of challenging it.

And it's hard not to feel like some of that same slapdash approach also is heard on the production - transitions within songs are harder and sharper, sample fidelity varies even more widely between tracks, and while I'm a huge fan of the soulful palette that Madlib creates, he even tries his hand at sharper, more spare trap grooves like off the brittle clicking percussion on 'Situations' or the first section of 'Half Manne Half Cocaine' before the song warps into a more nightmarish breakdown with contorted tones, louder cymbals, and Freddie Gibbs trapped within it, highlighting the shift between dealer flexing and the darker nightmare of the real drug trade. And make no mistake, this album can get pretty damn dark: the spooling tape and pileup of vocal samples on the claustrophobic 'Massage Seats', the scuzzy warps of 'Flat Tummy Tea' that still leaves spiking echoes after the beat switch, to the haunted keys and curdling bass beneath 'Giannis'. And while Madlib is a great enough producer to balance his mixes when they go lo-fi, I do question why 'Education' piled on the warping compression and had the most muddy vocal mixing on the entire album - on a song with Mos Def and Black Thought! But I'll freely admit I'm drawn most to the crackling soul side of Madlib the most, from the gentle fluttering keys and warped compression of 'Crime Pays', the acoustic-backed crackling soul of 'Palmolive', the stunning Donny Hathaway flip on 'Practice', the more lush guitar-accented backdrop of 'Cataracts', and the soulful bass cushion of 'Gat Damn' - Gibbs might not be a great singer to croon through this sort of song, but he does have a knack for a strong tune that helps here. 

And that's the frustrating thing about talking about this project, because it is a great album... and I'm critical because I've got high standards and expectations for Freddie Gibbs and Madlib. The flows and a lot of the wordplay are top-notch, the guest stars deliver, the soulful vibe is textured and potent, I find more cleverness with every listen when I unpack this project - but I'm left with an odd feeling that Gibbs has less control here, that the path forward feels murkier, and that this album seems to have less direction even through its layers. In a strange way I'm reminded of similar religious subtext of the systemic damnation the black man must face and overcome that was all over Kendrick Lamar's DAMN., but where Kendrick was acutely aware of his position as a leader increasingly feeling the weight, Gibbs is more of the street-level everyman who wants to bear the weight and ascend the mountain, but only sees the pitfalls in his journey, not a path. It seems like the focus has shifted from inward to outward on this project, and if it didn't come with a more fractured project I'd probably be inclined to put this among the best of 2019... but I'm not sure it gets all the way there, or have the killer standouts that I loved like 'Deeper' or 'Shame' from Pinata. As such, for me I'm giving this an 8/10 and absolutely a recommendation - this is great hip-hop entirely up my alley - but if it comes around year-end season and this has faded a little on me, don't be surprised. In the mean time... really, I'm just curious what path Freddie Gibbs will take - be it with Madlib or without, it's anyone's guess.

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