In a sentence:
Freddie Gibbs and Madlib join forces once again for their second collaboration LP ‘Bandana’, which sees them explore each other’s worlds even more thoroughly.
When a collaboration between Freddie Gibbs and Madlib was announced in 2014, it registered as an immediate head-turner. How would these two artists – one a hard-hitting gangbanger from Gary, Indiana, the other a soft-spoken, old-school DJ with a penchant for obscure jazz samples – reconcile their glaring differences? The result was something stronger than what many probably anticipated. More than just an interesting collision of disparate styles, Piñata emerged as a surprisingly cohesive work, with Gibbs’ deep baritone sounding perfectly at home enveloped in Madlib’s lo-fi jazz and soul loops. In its clash of sensibilities Piñata managed to open up new possibilities in each of the artists’ respective styles; Gibbs was forced outside of his comfort zone, adjusting adeptly to the challenge of his producer’s famously old-fashioned technique, while his harsh lyricism lent Madlib’s warm, retro beats an invigorating freshness. Now, five years later, the two have teamed up for another album, Bandana.
there’s much less call to be surprised by Piñata’s
success. Since 2014 Gibbs has demonstrated again and again his technical
versatility, able to bounce between various styles seemingly at will. Think of
the way he commands his feature on Young Thug’s 2015 single ‘Old English’, following the song’s left-field trap
rhythm for a few bars before crashing down on the beat with a powerful delayed
introduction: “Gangsta Gibbs, ho, fresh
up off a powder pack”. He has an uncanny knack for finding the pocket and
bending the beat to his will.
proficiency is evident on Bandana as
well; he’ll often settle comfortably into a song’s laidback groove before
kicking things up a notch with a seamless shift into double-time (‘Crime Pays’ and ‘Situations’, to name two examples), and he never
gets lost in Madlib’s sudden beat changes, smoothly following along with the
producer’s whims. On the later track ‘Gat Damn’, he offers
an apt summary of the album on the whole: “I
can’t move the same I gotta readjust how I manoeuvre.” It’s a line that
speaks not only to his restless artistry, what seems like a constant desire to
find new sonic modes of expression, but also his thematic concerns. Bandana is an album about reflection – examining
one’s past and trying to find a new path forward.
previous LP, 2018’s Freddie, was a work of almost reckless
exuberance, Bandana is introspective
in tone, finding Gibbs, unsurprisingly, back in the mode of Piñata. On the first proper track ‘Freestyle Shit’ he
carves out a dichotomy that defines much of the record. “Yeah, ’cause when this music shit wasn’t movin’, man / I said I might
as well be movin’ thangs”. Backed by horn samples and a bouncing bassline,
his delivery is misleadingly nonchalant. Before his music career took off he
was in the streets hustling to fund his mixtapes. (“Crack cocaine, I was my own investor.”) But now that he has found
success he is finding it difficult to extricate himself from that world. Later,
on the Donny Hathaway-sampling ‘Practice’, probably
the album’s most sombre track, he wonders, “How
am I gonna break up with the streets? / I got the questions but I can’t find
the answers / Delicate circumstances”.
READ MORE: An Introduction to Brainfeeder – playlist
Much of the album
is defined by such practices. He reminisces about the past, sometimes
nostalgically but often painfully – haunted memories, mistakes made, and lost
friends are always present. On ‘Fake Names’ he
speaks to that trauma: “Every time I
sleep, dead faces, they occupy my brain.” Later he recalls an incident at
an arcade as a kid, where he watched his uncle stab another man in the neck. In
ruminating on these memories he tends to fixate, specifically, on the passing
of time: on ‘Situations’ he remembers seeing a friend indelibly changed
after being run over by a motorcycle (“I
seen him transform to crackhead Ed”).
At times this
fixation even extends beyond his own lifetime. “I be all in these bitches’ stomachs like Flat Tummy Tea,” goes the
hook to ‘Flat Tummy Tea’, a rather innocuous Instagram-conscious joke that
quickly turns to something more caustic as it continues: “Crackers
came to Africa, ravaged, raffled, and rummaged me / America was the name of
they fuckin’ company.”
The song, which is marked by an uncharacteristically distorted synth riff by
Madlib, goes on to note the frivolousness of the criminal pardons Obama made
before leaving office, and considers the ubiquitous presence of slave stories
in popular media (“Slave movies every
year, yeah, the master gon’ remind us”). To Gibbs things have hardly
changed, and for people like him, those systematically oppressed, the future is
often all but decided. “Incarceration my
destination, I would wind up / Addicted to medication, poured another line up.”
That all of this
contemplation is backgrounded by Madlib’s beats is significant. These sorts of
poignant reflections can be found elsewhere in contemporary hip-hop, in
Future’s gloomy trap-ballads, for instance, or in the imagistic expressions of
violence characteristic of drill music, but Madlib’s production, which on Bandana is lusher than ever, full of
orchestral string samples and full-bodied synth pads, provides Gibbs’
distinctly modern raps with a fittingly backwards-looking backdrop.
On the titular ‘Bandana’, which oddly enough was released as a standalone
promotional single, not actually appearing on the album, Gibbs conjures the
striking image of a bloodstained bandana – an apt metaphor for that which his
music reckons with. He’s a grown man now, a father, and his days of hustling to
survive are over, but that bandana, that symbol of the best and worst aspects
of his past, still lingers. He can’t bear to part with it, nor can he wash out
its stains. (8/10) (Brendan Nagle)
Listen to Bandana by Freddie Gibbs & Madlib here via Spotify, and tell us what you think below!
Tags: Bandana, Freddie Gibbs, hip hop, Keep Cool, Madlib, review
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