For Freddie Gibbs, the Devil Is in the Details

“Madlib lets me tell my life story in such a cinematic way. Whenever I work with him, I don’t hear the songs, I see them.”
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In late May, Freddie Gibbs and Madlib revealed the cover art for their second album, Bandana. Hollywood is on fire. The night sky, pitch black without a single star in sight, is an empty canvas, painted with thick trails of smoke billowing from burning buildings. A piñata is busted open in the corner, a car overturned at the cliff’s ledge. In the form of Quasimoto perched atop a zebra, Madlib and Freddie Gibbs look onward from a bird’s eye view, calm and collected amongst the chaos.

Four weeks later, and five years after MadGibbs delivered their first full-length collaboration, the duo returned with a vengeance.

In the music video for their soulful single “Crime Pays,” the first Bandana visual to be released, Gibbs is barking orders and expletives at his underlings about a Monday deadline. He’s a zebra farmer on Mt. Kane, surrounded by Earth’s natural wonders—a stark contrast to the jail cell Gibbs called home for four months, thousands of miles from his loved ones, writing rhymes in his head for what he thought would be his final album.

On June 2, 2016, Freddie Gibbs was arrested on charges of sexual abuse in Toulouse, France, and placed in a cell block with men accused or found guilty of the charge of rape. Roughly one month prior, his daughter, Irie Jane Gibbs, celebrated her third birthday. Gibbs’ case was broadcast nightly on the news. Police officers asked Gibbs to rap in exchange for food.

After being extradited to Austria, Gibbs underwent a four-hour trial. That September, due to a lack of physical evidence, conflicting testimonies, and a team of 11 defense lawyers (“Beat the verdict, but lost a milli’, guess life ain’t perfect”), he was acquitted of all charges.

“That shit pushed me to a limit that I never been pushed to,” Gibbs told Entertainment Weekly. “I had to dig out of a different place to make it. I literally wrote it like it was about to be my last album.” Beyond Gibbs’ bravado and verbal acrobatics, Bandana is a fractured road map of old, festering wounds and red-eyed nightmares.

Every time I sleep, dead faces, they occupy my brain” —Freddie Gibbs, "Fake Names"

The allure of the fast life remains ever-present in Gibbs’ narratives as he flips bricks like an Olympic gymnast, but his reflections are candid and cerebral. “Diamonds in my chain, yeah I slang, but I’m still a slave / Twisted in the system, just a number listed on the page,” he raps on “Crime Pays.” 

Over ominous strings, Gibbs delves deeper into the dark side of slanging white in his telling of Ricky G and Yella’s story on “Fake Names.” He strips away the romanticization of drug dealing even further by breaking down actual prices (“They was getting shit for seventeen / Tossin’ shit to me for twenty-eight / Bitch go for thirty-one, I barely ate”), a scandalous dynamic in the face of his unconditional loyalty (“You was like a brother to me, no other to me”).

In the song’s second verse, Gibbs offers a subtle glimpse into his sexual assault case (“Speak it from my own mouth before I let the time tell”), and although there’s nothing particularly harrowing about this line, the devil is in the details:

“These n***as came into my cell and said, ‘You got ten years on the table, admit this shit today and we’ll give you three.’ So I said, ‘Y’all want me to lie on myself and take three years in prison, away from my child, then fight for my freedom? Go talk to my lawyer.’” —Freddie Gibbs, XXL Interview

Gibbs never dwells on his distressing legal situation for too long, opting instead to dig into the skeletons of his past. On “Situations,” he peels back multiple layers of trauma deeply rooted in his bloodline, admitting “robbin’, killin’, drug dealin’ in my genes.” There’s a strain in his voice as he shifts to a breathless double-time tempo, rushing through the memory of narrowly surviving a shootout in which his cousin took two bullets to the brain (“I can see the day like it was yesterday, I’ll never forget it”). The second verse begins with another grim recollection: witnessing his uncle stab somebody in the neck in ‘89, turning “the arcade to a stampede.”

Gibbs’ vivid memories—memories that have been seared into his psyche—are complemented by Madlib’s foggy, dreamlike aesthetic, over which he also pays tribute to the late Josh The Goon, an audio engineer and producer who let the rapper crash on his couch in Los Angeles, helping him record and stay motivated after being dropped by Interscope in 2007.

“Josh was one of my best friends, man. Like, if it wasn’t for Josh, man, I wouldn’t even make music again or anything like that,” he tearfully told Complex.

In 2014, Gibbs endured a lean addiction caused by crippling PTSD, which, as the rapper notes on “Cataracts,” had him “depressed as fuck / Duckin’ shots and wonderin’ if my own n***as set me up.” On “Flat Tummy Tea,” the drug-induced paranoia reaches a boiling point as Gibbs predicts he will eventually be found “overdosed with a styrofoam cup.” At the song’s conclusion, however, he reveals how he was able to right the ship by using supreme mathematics—a philosophy taught by the Nation of Islam, which Gibbs converted to in February of 2017. 

Later, on “Education,” Gibbs notes the integral role his newfound faith is playing in his healing process and transformation, rapping “Got off the stove and slowed my role, I’m in the mosque now.” Through this change of heart, Gibbs is able to admit on “Practice,” “When I was going through problems at home, I should have prayed more.” His voice is staticky, creating distance between himself and the listener as he reflects on his infidelity; it sounds as if we’re eavesdropping on a confessional through a foreign radio frequency—an intimate invasion of privacy.

Gibbs primarily approaches Bandana with a sense of urgency, taking an aggressive anti-authoritative position as he name-drops politicians and takes shots at the White House, and raps about reparations, colonialism, police brutality, and institutionalization—all of which is heightened further by Madlib’s dense, experimental production.

“Madlib lets me tell my life story in such a cinematic way. Whenever I work with him, I don’t hear the songs, I see them,” Gibbs told Dazed Digital in an interview that ran the day before the album's release.

Having written the lion’s share of Bandana while in a jail cell—Gibbs says he memorized a handful of Madlib’s beats—this cinematic sheen not only provided him refuge, but it allowed the veteran emcee to reflect the gravity of his turbulent past accurately. For his part, Madlib stitched together a soundscape with the precision of a world-class surgeon microdosing psychedelics and moonlighting as a beatsmith.

If Freddie Gibbs’ raps are black-and-white film noir, Madlib’s beats transform them into an IMAX-ready remastering. After walking through hell in his size 12s, the Gary, Indiana native emerges a stronger artist, father, and man, and despite the context surrounding its inception, with an undeniable sense of triumph.

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