Piñata, the full-length collaboration between 21st-century gangster rapper Freddie Gibbs and 31st-century producer Madlib, lulls breezily between pro forma thuggery and Swisha Sweet insights, mixing progressive beats (sampled, not synthesized) with grizzled street raps (real talk, not fake Bawse boasts). But though this is well-trod ground, from the blaxploitation allusions to the Odd Future and TDE cameos (sorry, no Kendrick), there is innovation and illumination here, too. There is “Thuggin’,” wherein Gibbs chops over frail guitar licks looped and sped up into an Americanized spaghetti-gangster soundtrack, thanks to Madlib’s excavation of an arcane British library record, Rubba’s “Way Star” (h/t WhoSampled.com). There is “Deeper,” wherein Gibbs unravels a deeply metaphorical flip on Common’s “I Used to Love H.E.R.” and bemoans the decline of gangsta rap culture, “All for a nigga that ain’t got nothing that I ain’t got / Only difference is, he’s tryin’ to be a fuckin’ astronaut.”
Give credit to Gibbs for knowing how to beat this Piñata until it rains nose-freezing gram sacks. Much like the Jackson family, he bolted from the post-industrial dead-end of Gary, Indiana, to Los Angeles, a newly minted hometown to which he pays homage in “Lakers.” With a killer guest list (also including Scarface, Raekwon and Danny Brown), and a sunshine-kissed, slow-cooked feel (its origins date back to 2011’s “Thuggin'” 12-inch) — the result should rejuvenate a career that wavered off course after an ill-advised alliance with Young Jeezy’s CTE camp that yielded little beyond 2011’s exemplary Cold Day in Hell mixtape. Gibbs takes numerous shots at the Snowman here, including a few on “Real”: “You wanna be Jay-Z, nigga, you just a fuckin’ puppet,” he rants. Gibbs lost not only a major-label deal, but two years of his career to industry red tape and the resulting diminished visibility.
Speaking of disappearing acts, did anyone miss Madlib? Piñata, which arrives the same month as the 10-year anniversary of his landmark Madvillainy team-up with MF Doom, marks the first album he has wholly produced since Georgia Anne Muldrow’s early-2012 hippie-soul gem Seeds. (Vinyl enthusiasts, though, will note the usual creep of his Loop Digga instrumental fodder, including last year’s Rock Konducta Part 1.) We’ve grown so inured to his hyperactivity that we barely notice when it’s not coming from him directly: The fact that his influence wafts through the West Coast like so much blunt smoke has masked his brief absence, from the herbal depression of Earl Sweatshirt (who drops a verse on “Robes”) to the dust-flecked vinyl rips of Jeremiah Jae’s 2012 Raw Money Raps. He’s a visionary whose legacy is too often dismissed as an underground tangent instead of a key marker in West Coast hip-hop.
He brings a light touch to Piñata. Per indie-rap custom, Gibbs recorded his vocals separately, after picking out beat files; Madlib sprinkles little sampled eccentricities throughout, from the the slobbering dopehead near the end of “High” (“Hey, you okay? You slobbering, you okay?”) to the slurred phone call from Gibbs’ perpetually wasted Uncle Big Time Watts on “Watts” (“You a sorry punk! You rappin’-ass, pussy-ass motherfucker!”). These touches aren’t as impressively weed-fried as those on 2010’s apocalyptic Madlib Medicine Show peak Before the Verdict, but such an approach here would only drown out his collaborator.
Madlib has served as midwife to street-rap epics before — see Guilty Simpson’s OJ Simpson and Strong Arm Steady’s In Search of Stoney Jackson — but Gibbs may be the first MC to try to add context deeper than his own paranoid churlishness. He strikes a believable image of an everyday grinder hustling sacks in the CPT in spite of a newly signed record contract, “Sleeping in my dope-house clothes, with a pair of Air Jordans and some dirty Girbauds.” He layers his songs with biographical notes, revealing how he started slanging at the age of 12 on, and that he didn’t bother with college because he was “laying on a kush cloud getting zoned out.” From the lyrics to the beats, the triumph of Piñata is in the details.