It is fitting that Freddie Gibbs is from Indiana. He balances the long-held dichotomy of hip-hop, the much ballyhooed west coast–east coast division that splits sensibilities between California's laid back gangster raps, and New York City's harder beats and flows. That balance very much marks his style.
But to make his mark, seven years ago the Gary, Ind., native—a city as blighted as its Rust Belt neighbor, Detroit—Gibbs moved to Los Angeles and made himself known as an up and comer in the hip-hop scene.
Since 2010, he has been issuing albums and mixtapes, starting with Str8 Killa, an album that brought acclaim and in true west coast California dreaming style, yielded a deal with Young Jeezy (who has appeared on sugary pop tracks like Rihanna's "Hard" and Usher's "Love in This Club," while simultaneously releasing darker gravel-voiced solo material) and his label Corporate Thugz Entertainment.
A pair of digitally-issued albums followed, raising his visibility and bringing Gibbs to the attention of California producer Madlib, a founding member of '90s underground stalwarts Lootpack and label honcho at Stones Throw Records. In turn, Gibbs was given a handful of half-sketched productions from Madlib.
What followed was a somewhat appropriately blindfolded collaboration (um, considering that the result was an album titled Piñata): The two artists did not discuss what beat would best fit which rap, and there wasn't even an overarching concept for the album. Instead, Gibbs just shot back completed tracks, and Madlib topped the whole thing off with production flourishes.
The result, Piñata, is languid '70s funk and soul that contrasts with anything that Gibbs had rapped over before, namely analog sounding drum programing and synthetic keys.
He's still in the business of relating gangster-styled stories and has been candid about living the life of a hustler. Even without confirmation of his illicit lifestyle in interviews, listening to Piñata makes his proclivities pretty clear.
On "Deeper," the rapper gets off couplets like, "Half a thing of heroin in the bathroom/Keep an AK and the backup in the backroom," over a rich, violin sample. Piñata, though, isn't all tough-guy bravado.
Gibbs sings a few bars from TLC's "Waterfalls," as well as a snippet of a Babyface song on "Robes." The move is clearly a joke—the MC having fun while putting in work on his glossiest album to date. But it's a further blurring of genre and culture.
That sort of playful reappropriation, and his partnership with Madlib—whose fan base has little to do with the mixtape culture that's enabled Gibbs to flourish—points toward a future in which he will move beyond being the opening act.
Tech N9ne with Freddie Gibbs
Tues., May 27 | 7 pm.
Midtown Music Hall, 51 NW Greenwood Ave. | $29.