In a genre so fixated on authenticity—on being ‘real’—as hip-hop, leaps in stylistic or personal development can seem forced, a selling out for mass appeal or street credibility. Freddie Gibbs however, has pulled off the feat of a major artistic rebirth with the release of his eagerly anticipated new project You Only Live 2wice. The Renaissance inspired album art represents this metamorphosis, with a robed Gibbs hovering serenely in the air, seemingly ascending above a foreground depicting emblems of the grim realities of his former life.
This transformation was occasioned by two life-altering events. Shortly after the release of Piñata, his ground-breaking collaboration with Madlib, Gibbs was targeted outside a record signing event in New York by two gunmen who narrowly missed him, instead injuring members of his entourage.
Two years later, after enjoying international acclaim for the first time in his long and troubled career, Gibbs was extradited from France to Austria on sexual assault charges, spending months in jail before being acquitted on all counts. Facing the prospect of ten years in prison in a foreign country for a crime he did not commit, Gibbs underwent what he calls a ‘conversion’ and vowed to turn his back on his old life—the drugs, fickle friends and, if necessary, his music itself.
In the moving outro to the album, Gibbs describes the anxiety of being surrounded by an unfamiliar language, hoping only for a book he could understand. He began furiously writing the project inside the cell he shared with a swastika-tattooed inmate, as a means of passing the time and of distracting himself from the thought that that he might not see his young daughter grow up.
Frustration and regret have always been elements of Gibbs’ work, apparent in the menacing yet vulnerable tone of his delivery as much as in his lyrics. The feelings of remorse about his life as a drug dealer in Gary, Indiana, one of America’s most violent cities, has always been one of the more intriguing sides to his gritty street tales, but these occasional reflective moments come to the fore as a major theme of the new album.
On stand out track ‘Alexys’, co-produced by the seemingly omnipresent Kaytranada and BADBADNOTGOOD, Gibbs remembers his early exposure to drugs “I first taste cocaine in tenth grade” and reflects on the ultimately empty nature of his former work: “Feds lookin’ because I peddled pain to these poor folks / The realest n****s that I know ain’t never sold dope”.
On ‘Crushed Glass’ Gibbs is at his angriest and most determined, fusing his desire for personal transformation—“The future started yesterday / every minute feeling different, I am not the same”—with bitter reflections on the injustices he and his people have suffered: “‘Round the world, jail system like a slave trade / Got the recipe for dope, my reparations paid”. As always, Gibbs is able to propel a track singlehandedly with the force of his visceral imagery. Even when the production and lyrical content tail off towards the end of the tape, his sheer versatility keeps the listener rapt with an urgency few can match. With his last few projects, Gibbs has solidified his status as the true successor to his idol Tupac’s mantle of the ‘thug poet’. If the emphasis up until now has been on the first part of that title, one hopes that his newfound direction will allow him to more fully explore his poetry.