'Piñata,' 5 Years Later: How Madlib Brought the Best out of Freddie Gibbs

The essence of 'Piñata' is found beyond Freddie Gibbs' seemingly endless tales of cocaine-slanging and gangbanging.
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Freddie Gibbs, Madlib, Pinata, album cover

Freddie Gibbs has been slanging and banging since ‘94. A notable scar runs across his right eyebrow from a robbery gone wrong. The trapper-turned-underground-phenom is championed by rap purists for his technical precision and street-oriented rhymes. 

Madlib is a reclusive, prolific producer with a penchant for dusty loops and crate-digging by candlelight. Ironically, he has an alter-ego named Quasimoto—a cartoon with a pitched-up voice that looks like some sort of anteater-alien hybrid—who satirizes the sensibilities of gangster rap. 

Considering Madlib’s previous joint projects with the late J Dilla (Jaylib) and MF DOOM (Madvillainy), Gangsta Gibbs hardly seems like the ideal collaborative candidate on paper. The unlikeliest pairings, however, often yield the strongest results.

The duo met in 2009 through Freddie Gibbs’ manager, Ben “Lambo” Lambert, who used to work at Stones Throw Records. Madlib handed the pair eight CDs worth of beats, and together, over a period of three years, Lambert and Gibbs went to work. 

“We two different guys, man,” Gibbs told Rolling Stone in 2014. “I was still in the streets when I first started that Madlib album. I was, then I wasn’t. You can tell the progression on the record, though. You can tell the different places that I’m in.”

“Thuggin’,” released in late 2011, was our first glimpse into this timeline (“Critically-acclaimed but that shit don’t mean a thang / When you rocking mics and stealing microwaves, cooking ‘caine”). The music video features coke-stained pots in the kitchen of a trap house, a crack addict blowing thick billows of smoke through his nose, and an AK-47 with a banana clip longer than your arm. The menace of Gibbs’ gruff baritone and drug-dealing raps over Madlib’s hypnotic, ambient production wove together seamlessly, and the anticipation for their full-length debut was mounting with each passing year.

On March 18, 2014, MadGibbs finally dropped their masterpiece: Piñata. The intro, “Supplier,” begins with one of Madlib’s signature blaxploitation samples: 

“It really didn’t matter what the means was or how you had to go and get it. That’d mean you had to step on 10 people to get a dollar, then you step on 10 people. And you know that this is what I’d heard constantly: only the strong survive.” 

Over wailing sirens and synthesizers on “Scarface,” Gibbs delves deeper into his “by any means necessary” mentality through ski masks, duct tape, and strong-arm robbery (“Let’s jack this nigga cause he got some shit we can’t afford / Another day in Gary, another couple n***as in the morgue”).

Gibbs’ hometown of Gary, Indiana was once the epicenter of the nation’s booming steel industry in the early-to-mid 1900s before it was effectively reduced to a modern-day ghost town crippled by economic collapse; it’s estimated that almost one-third of all houses are abandoned. In the music video for his 2013 song, “Lay it Down,” two news anchors from ABC30 Action News exchange some playful banter about the forgotten city: “I drove through it one time, I think I needed to take an AK-47 with me.”

While beelining through Gary, the NBC anchor may have missed a local staple: Harold’s Chicken Shack. Gibbs reveals his favorite order on “Harold’s”—six wings, fries, and extra mild sauce with the bread stuck to the bottom—while reminiscing about neighborhood beef and seeing “schoolgirls turn into strippers in stilettos.” And although he’s proud of where he’s from, the Ab-Soul assisted “Lakers” is an ode to his current city of residence: Los Angeles. Gibbs dreamt of cruising down Crenshaw since he watched the South Central cult classic Boyz n the Hood, and the city of palm trees and low riders represents a second chance for his career (“Too much pride to let this pussy industry play me out / Repairing that broken dream, that’s what L.A. about”).

After being dropped from Interscope just two years after signing his deal and following a failed stint with Young Jeezy’s imprint CTE, Freddie Gibbs’ patience for industry politics imploded on “Real,” an onslaught of scathing insults directed at one of hip-hop’s most feared and respected veterans. 

In the social media era of veiled threats and passive-aggressive beef, “Real” stands as one of the best diss tracks of the current decade. Gibbs cites specific incidents while explicitly questioning Jeezy’s integrity and manhood. On a grander scale, Gibbs’ fearlessness and nonexistent concern for repercussions on any level embody the unwavering spirit of independence.

“Just a whole lot of rapping, but no motherfucking action / Seen Gucci by himself while we was 30 deep at Magic / And you didn’t bust a grape, was shook from the gate / It make it seem to be the gangsta shit you kick be fake” —Freddie Gibbs, "Real"

Gibbs’ love for the hustle is deeply rooted in his Gary-bred persona, and his braggadocio sometimes comes across as a glorification of his illicit lifestyle. As he reminds us on “Shitsville,” though, that judgment should be reserved. The cinematic instrumental sounds like an amphetamine-fueled orchestra, and the urgency of Gibbs’ manic staccato is reminiscent of the late Tupac Shakur, one of his biggest influences.

“You wake up everyday and pray before you sleep, right? You motherfuckers just like me / You shed tears when you’re hurting; if I cut you then you bleed, right? You motherfuckers just like me” —Freddie Gibbs, "Shitsville"

Throughout Piñata, the Loop Digga’s versatility brings out the full spectrum of Freddie Gibbs as a human being, coloring his double-time flows and bleak narratives with deeper shades of emotion. The sprawling, luscious soundscape seemed to spark a newfound focus in Gibbs as he explored uncharted territory—both sonically and topically—tapping further into his introspective side and providing a more nuanced self-portrait beyond the cold-blooded gangster and pimp.

The high points of the album are found in these poignant moments of vulnerability. Madlib provides an eerie, spacious canvas on “Deeper” for Gibbs to paint a captivating tale of love and betrayal with an M. Night Shyamalan twist at the end. The grooves on “Broken” are laced with nostalgia as Gibbs reflects on his upbringing: tension with his father (“Can’t see eye to eye with my old man / Hiding my insecurities with his gang flag / We both despise the police but he wore the same badge”) and being raised in a broken home (“I’m a crook and you crooked, that’s all we got in common / He chucked the deuce to my momma, so much for family bonding”). And just as Gibbs admitted “seven bucks an hour wasn’t good enough,” one of his idols, Scarface, echoed a similar sentiment in his flawless feature.

There’s a wealth of other notable guest appearances: Raekwon on the psychedelic “Bomb,” BJ the Chicago Kid’s silky crooning on the soulful “Shame,” Mac Miller on the title track, and arguably the strongest assist on the entire project, Earl Sweatshirt on the jazzy “Robe.”

“My stuff, it ain’t fully quantized. It has more of a human feel, so it might slow down or speed up. So you have to be the type of rapper, like DOOM or Freddie, who can catch that, or else you’ll be sounding crazy,” Madlib told Rappcats in 2014. The brilliance of Piñata is anchored in the duo’s undeniable chemistry, and the rapid-fire technician never sounds less than pitch-perfect over Madlib’s esoteric beats.

In a 2013 interview with HipHopDX, Gibbs revealed that the title of the project was inspired by a dream: 

“I’ma tell you the truth, man. I had a dream, dog, that I had a little baby. The little baby’s birthday was here and shit. That n***a wanted a piñata, man, in the dream, man. I don’t know. I must’ve been cooking some dope or some shit that week, because the n***a started hitting the piñata, and it wasn’t shit but dope falling out the piñata. I was just like, ‘Damn, man.’ They was just kids playing in the dope.”

Gibbs’ nightmare is a stark reflection of our listening experience: sifting through 17 tracks of densely packed rhymes amidst a hazy collage of obscure soul and funk chops. But the essence of Piñata is found beyond the seemingly endless tales of cocaine-slanging and gangbanging—a haunting portrait of a man who’s seen everything but old age, praying that his demons never catch up from his old ways.

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