Image description: Freddie Gibbs and Madlib performing at The Echoplex in March 2014.
A welcome surprise: Freddie Gibbs’ tweet, announcing a single would premiere the next day, was followed by an album’s release the day after. It’s not a long listen at 35 minutes, recorded and produced “quick as lightning”, in the words of Alchemist.
Gibbs shines best with collaborators. His two albums with Madlib, Piñata (2014) and Bandana (2019) were among the finest releases of their years, with Gibbs being given the freedom to deliver punchy verses over smooth, consistent beats. Gibbs and Alchemist have made music together since 2003, and their last major collaboration was Fetti (2018), which brought in the rapper Curren$y.
At 42, Alchemist’s production remains stellar. His beats are produced for particular rappers, and here perfectly complement Freddie Gibbs’ effortless flirting between drug running, post-crime luxury, and introspection. The mood is evocative of jazzy neo-noir soundtracks, or the rolling credits of a self-aware blaxploitation film.
A hallmark of sampling has always been embracing the charms of analogue, and a grainy layer coats the soulful keys that form the backbone of the beats here. Gibbs is a remarkably versatile rapper, whose charting songs have often been over g-funk samples or even trap beats, especially at the start of his career.
Yet, if there were any doubts at the start of his career surrounding his ability to spit over soul samples, they were long assuaged with his earlier work with Madlib. Neither the aloha sample at the end of ‘Frank Lucas’ or the power-rock guitar riff on the opening track, ‘1985’ are challenges that are too tricky.
It’s easy to caricature Gibbs as a “pastiche gangsta throwback”, as The Guardian has done. It’s not unfair given his last-man-standing attitude, albeit one mellowing and increasingly reflective over a career that’s brought him from Gary, Indiana to Los Angeles.
He continues treading the balance between shedding light on his hustle, and grappling with the callousness that often insulate less self-reflexive rappers
Here, he continues treading the balance between shedding light on his hustle, and grappling with the callousness that often insulate less self-reflexive rappers (not his equals, he would surely say). There is the occasional interlude, which never crosses into the realm of soap-opera glorification of a criminal life. On ‘Babies & Fools’ he recollects a transition from childhood to crime, contemplates moments of redemption, and his family:
“My first love was football from playin’ that Madden shit
My second love was hard drugs, weed and this rappin’ shit
Alhamdulillah on the nights that I wasn’t havin’ shit
I say my prayers but I’m rusty as fuck with Arabic
Lord, take me as I am ’cause I’m gon’ come as I’m is
I might die twice if I look down and see my mama in tears.”
At other moments, they are eerily prescient of our times: “Yeah, the revolution is the genocide // Look, your execution will be televised”.
On the whole, the album is not particularly political, instead capturing the complex intersection between neighbourhood life, death, and the contradictions between success and criminality that have come to define him. There is braggadocio, but not predictably so. “Michael Jordan, 1985, bitch, I travel with a cocaine circus”, he raps at the start of the album.
Even at the end of the album, he remains defiant. “Straight survival, right hand on the Bible, I won’t take the stand”. Yet elsewhere, sampled interludes are used to vocalize what doesn’t neatly fit into 16 bars. Gil-Scott Heron hence speaks, over Alchemist’s hypnotising beats: “The thing that’s going to change people // It’s something that no one will be able to capture on film”.
His flow is varied and fluid, but never abandons the deep intonation and impeccable cadence that provides the incredible synergy
Throughout the album it’s evident Freddie Gibbs’ rapping has only improved significantly since Fetti: his flow is varied and fluid, but never abandons the deep intonation and impeccable cadence that provides the incredible synergy with whatever producer he’s working with. The delivery is reminiscent of both his older discography and gangster rap from the 1990s on ‘God is Perfect’’s hook about microphone checks, but never derivative. On ‘Skinny Suge’ one can almost imagine a beat switch Gibbs is responding to.
There are four features on this album, which never steal the show while holding their own. No one dominates a hook, goes first on a song: it’s evident they’re Freddie and Alchemist’s guests, through and through.
Rick Ross’ verse is an ethereal haze (Gibbs’ initial reaction to the beat for Scottie Beam: “This is Maybach music”), gracing the track with his best guest feature since Devil In A New Dress (2010). Benny the Butcher flows over ‘Frank Lucas’, channelling the titular drug trafficker: “Let the feds tell it, apparently I’m active // Gucci hoodie smell like kerosine and ashes”. His verse is long, vicious, and unfortunately, just about outstays its welcome.
Conway the Machine trades melodic refrains with Gibbs (Gave these streets, all of me) while opening up in a way reminiscent of his emotional, breakout verse, one he’s performed live and in tears. On ‘Something to Rap About’, Tyler the Creator makes a welcome return to rap. Eschewing his maximalist tendencies to lay down a verse that may remind older listeners of his earlier hip-hop, the edginess whittled away by success and age: “We look like Polo ads but skin is darkened”.
Contrary to what its title may suggest, its producer and rapper are not hungry, but satiated with their successes
Alfredo is a fantastic album in short: contrary to what its title may suggest, its producer and rapper are not hungry, but satiated with their successes. The highs of the album may not match up to the peaks elsewhere in their discography, but nonetheless come together for a satisfying, Grimey experience that continues to add shades of grey to their identities. What’s coming up next? “Part two”, Gibbs promises to a Complex interviewer. We’ve got much to look forward to.
This article was originally titled ‘A welcome surprise: the newest collaboration of Gibbs and Alchemist’ but has been updated to better reflect the content.
Image credit: Carl Pocket