Over the past few years — arguably ever since 2011′s Cold Day in Hell — Indiana street rapper Freddie Gibbs’s music has become increasingly one-note. The prodigiously gifted MC has always treated his craft like an athletic event, working to preserve a near-constant stream of syllables like taking a breath would count against his score. On his formative mixtapes like The Miseducation of Freddie Gibbs and Midwestgangstaboxframecadillacmuzik these technical exercises coexisted with engaging storytelling, probing self-reflections and offhanded wisecracks. However, by the time of last year’s ESGN, his motorik flow had become the control variable in his music rather than a shifting line of fire, and allowed little room for his thoughts to land. His signature blend of smooth, Pac-like phrasing and Bun B’s warm, workmanlike delivery had ossified, and the speed of his flow came close to matching the pace of his chosen trap beats’ rapid-fire cymbal patterns. Piñata, a new full-length produced entirely by esteemed L.A. sample-head Madlib, makes strides toward reintroducing elasticity back into Gibbs’s music.
The rapper seems to have approached his collaboration with the Stones Throw beatsmith as a singular challenge: a game with its own rules. Luckily, it’s a spectator sport; we can hear Gibbs working to lock in with the loops, which are as capricious as the worn LPs from which they are often sampled. In the process, he gives us some of his most memorable verses of the past few years. The clearest example is “Real,” which opens with a disjointed, uptempo breakbeat, and then slows down and spaces out to dramatic effect. In this second, sparer section, the rapper’s flow is unusually speech-effusive as he delivers a seething, unhinged blast on his former boss, Jeezy, who dropped Gibbs from his CTE label last year (excerpt: “Man, you say you the realest nigga in it, motherfuckin’ chicken/ But Ross said you’re scared to drop a diss record/ No nuts, got the whole team lookin’ weak/ Guess that’s why they ran up on you at the BET”). “Deeper” is an anecdote-filled rant addressed to an unfaithful ex, and “Harold’s,” a playful tribute to the finest fried chicken chain in the country, transports us back to Gibbs’s blog-darling days of the late-2000s, when his resemblance to Pac was what distinguished him and not a rut he was stuck in.