“The caged bird sings with a fearful trill / Of things unknown, but longed for still / And his tune is heard on the distant hill / For the caged bird sings of freedom.” —Maya Angelou, “I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings”
On June 2, 2016, Freddie Gibbs was arrested before a concert in Toulouse, France, in connection with an alleged sexual assault case. The police acted on a warrant filed in connection with the Gary, Indiana rapper and his bodyguard’s alleged involvement in the date-rape of a woman while he was on tour in Vienna the year prior. What was supposed to be a victory lap after the release of his sophomore studio album, Shadow of a Doubt, instead became sinister darkness over the rapper’s career.
The following month, Freddie was arrested and extradited to a Belgian prison, where he faced a potential sentence of 10 years. While his trial commenced, Freddie was kept in holding; he was forced to share cell space with Nazis and was taunted by guards who didn’t speak English.
“The language barrier alone was frightening,” Freddie revealed on Viceland’s The Therapist. “I don’t know what this person is saying. I don’t know what y’all think of me.”
Freddie Gibbs was stranded in a foreign country, behind bars, with his face plastered all over the news. In such a trying situation, Freddie turned to what he knew best: writing. During a hectic two-month period in Austria, Freddie wrote the entirety of his third studio album, You Only Live 2wice, and most of Bandana, his second collaboration with Madlib.
Freddie Gibbs was eventually acquitted of all charges and released on bail the following September. In an interview with Shawn Setaro for Complex following his release, he revealed he was listening to Madlib beats moments before being arrested in Toulouse, and constructed his verses around them off memory alone.
Many of Freddie’s prior verses dealt with mortality and close calls, but the second verse on Bandana cut “Gat Damn” has a particular sense of urgency missing from his previous work. Imagine starving—the prison holding Freddie Gibbs only served “bacon, ham, and cold salami,” which, as a Muslim, Gibbs refused to eat—and still being able to come up with bars this captivating:
“Stomach hurtin’, the devil working, but I ain’t nervous / Beat the verdict, but lost a milli, guess life ain’t perfect / Whippin’ birdies, the devil working, but I ain’t nervous” —Freddie Gibbs, “Gat Damn”
As a whole, Bandana carries the pangs and triumphs of a post-prison rap album. Freddie fueled the victory of his release with the articulation of the crushing lows he experienced while behind bars. Following his freedom, his flows sound more enthusiastic. Madlib’s beats sound a touch more victorious. The perspective of a prison sentence forever amplifies stories of life (“Cataracts”) and death (“Fake Names”).
London’s J Hus, born Momodou Jallow, knows paranoia intimately. The 24-year-old rapper has had various run-ins with the law and the business end of his hometown’s escalating knife crisis since 2011, including being stabbed five times and hospitalized in 2015. The United Kingdom’s strict anti-gun laws forced a PTSD-stricken Hus to move differently, keeping a knife on his person at all times. As his artistic profile rose, police banned him from playing shows and festivals throughout London.
In June 2018, J Hus was arrested for carrying a knife in public and sentenced to eight months in jail. He was released in April 2019, and, aside from an on-stage reunion with Drake, has kept his head down and remained in recording mode. Much of Hus’ sophomore album, Big Conspiracy, released in January 2020, reflects on the presence of police, prison, and unnamed enemies in his life in visceral fashion.
“I seen pigs fly but I never seen a unicorn / Tryna find cover on somebody’s front lawn,” Hus sings on “Helicopter.” As a first-generation Londoner with Gambian heritage, J Hus believes the UK’s police system has done everything in its power to make him—and people who look like him—feel unwelcome. On “Fight For Your Life,” he counts his blessings from the outside while mourning friends who haven’t been as lucky: “A hundred racks on my bail, fuck sittin’ in jail / Had feds on my tail but they gon’ burn in Hell / I got eight months but my nigga’s doin’ a L / And as long as I’m alive, we can never fail.” Though J Hus is fresh out of prison, the cost of running the streets runs parallel with those of running through the music industry; he isn’t just looking after himself.
Even as friends and family weigh heavily on Hus’ conscience throughout the record, Big Conspiracy remembers to bask in freedom. Hus understands the consequences of being Black and free, yet he can’t shake the vigor attached to freedom after spending eight months locked up inside a cage. “I don’t even fear death,” he spits on “No Denying.” J Hus flexes the scars of incarceration on Big Conspiracy—“Why they wanna take my manhood and strip-search me?” he asks on “Deeper Than Rap”—if only to make the highs of freedom feel more potent.
Albums like Bandana and Big Conspiracy are windows into the minds of men perpetually gamed by systems beyond their control. To be Black in the United States or the United Kingdom is to be a second-class citizen, always forced to keep one eye over your shoulder. Enter now-veteran rapper and criminal justice reform advocate Meek Mill and his relationship with the police, which stretches back to a time before he signed his first record deal. The Philadelphia native was arrested and convicted for drug and gun possession in 2008, leading to a long strain of misdemeanor offenses and petty parole violations that would haunt him for the next decade.
Reading over Meek’s extensive history with the law is depressing. His is a tale of corruption and racism that no one of any age should have to experience first-hand. Incredibly, Meek managed to bottle up the energy from his hometown on April 24, 2018, when, after 10 years of fighting the system and millions spent in legal fees, his battle with the law came to a halt, and pump it into 2018’s Championships, his fourth studio album, and his first full-length release since exiting prison.
Championships is the soundtrack to a man’s life fueled by the will to thrive instead of just survive. “250 a show and they still think I’m sellin’ crack,” Meek bellows on “What’s Free,” equal parts deeply confused and energized. On “Trauma,” his burgeoning righteousness explodes with relentless passion across Don Cannon’s heavy 808s and synths. There’s a different force behind bars like “How many times you send me to jail to know that I won’t fail / Invisible shackles on the king, ’cause shit, I’m on bail.” Living under the watchful eye of the state forced Meek to move like a man living on borrowed time. Now, he no longer has to wait for anyone’s permission to release his pressure valves.
Regaining your freedom after temporarily losing it is a catharsis that many, including myself, don’t truly understand. Prison stints have inspired some of the greatest rap music ever produced, but how often do audiences truly consider the respective crucibles entertainers go through to create said art? The delivery of new music at all, period, after wading through the fire, is a miracle. Still, the post-prison album remains a celebration and a reckoning.
There’s something special about having the privilege to hear a once caged bird sing.