Madlib is perhaps hip-hop’s greatest enigma. In a career spanning almost three decades he has studied a variety of genres, masterfully integrating them into his now well-formed, idiosyncratic sound. From Brazilian funk to classical jazz and everything in between, there seems to be very little that he cannot master. Even without a mobile phone to communicate on, he has been the mastermind of several ground-breaking collaborative hip-hop albums. Of course, the project Madvillainy– with the equally mysterious MF DOOM – immediately comes to mind, an album steeped in stunning obscurity and unmatched innovation. One thinks too of the Jaylib project, the result of Madlib’s rapport with the intuitively adroit J Dilla. Nonetheless, even for an artist lauded for his relentless refusal to be pigeonholed, the news that Madlib was working with Freddie Gibbs came as a surprise to everyone within hip-hop.

You see, Freddie Gibbs is, superficially speaking, no MF DOOM. Whereas the latter intricately weaves syllables and rhymes in and around the clouded bliss produced by Madlib’s sampler, one might expect Gibbs to simply charge through that very haze, incongruously lacerating it with every bar. For Gibbs is a rapper for whom the beat is mostly a platform, not a dancing partner. It is a pillar on which he can victoriously stand, breathlessly diffusing knowledge on the minutiae of street life. He is often compared to the incomparable Tupac Shakur, yet, without the glamour of the west coast, Gibbs is actually a different animal altogether. Harking from Gary, Indiana, a place in which it is estimated nearly 1/3rdof all houses are either unoccupied or abandoned, his work is gritter, darker and more brooding than almost any other rapper, dead or alive. Therefore, when Gibbs and Madlib’s first album, Piñata, was released in 2014, it would be unfair to say that expectations were low. In reality, there were no expectations at all. Who could have predicted how this bastion of the nihilistic world of crime would mesh with such a leviathan of underground music, albeit an incognito one? If there was scepticism, however, the two quickly dispelled it. With each artist taking a meditated step into each other’s worlds, Piñataproved to be a revelation. Supplemented by a terrific host of guest features, from the drawly Earl Sweatshirt to the bombastic Meechy Darko, the perfect blaxploitation picture was painted, sirens and all. With the bling era of rap all but over, and the trap epoch beginning to boom, Gibbs and Madlib proved that cocaine-infused bars need not be trivialised nor expressed over thumping 808s. It was a project that carved a new path in the ever-forking road of hip-hop.

With such success, it seemed likely that in the years that followed Piñata, both artists’ careers would follow an exponential trajectory. Indeed, talks of a second album, Bandana, had even begun by the time Piñatahad been released. Yet, come 2019, it was clear that neither had achieved such an explosion of fame, and it appeared that Bandanahad been shelved forever. For Madlib, the reason for his lingering status in the more niche spheres of hip-hop is clear enough: he does not desire the celebrity status. With classics under his belt, he feels no need to pursue the zeitgeist, instead allowing music that he finds intriguing to approach him. Gibbs is different. Like many other rappers who have escaped the hardships of desolating poverty, he has no qualms in expressing his pursuit of success. He is, by no means, a sell-out, but he is certainly more commercially visible than other underground rappers. Press runs, shows, and even the occasional trap beat, Gibbs is unabashedly aiming for the elusive crown. So why has he not reached this peak? Well, in June 2016, Gibbs was arrested on a European arrest warrant for a rape alleged to have taken place in Austria in 2015. Confined in a European jail for some time, he was later released after a judge determined there was not sufficient evidence. It is now believed that the accuser’s statement derived from a dream that she had had. The political and legal aspects aside, the incident had a deleterious effect not only on Gibbs’s psychological condition, but also on his career. As he told Ebro Darden last year, “when I came out of that situation, you know, I had to build my name back up, […] I feel like I just had to explain myself. ‘Cause it’s a lot of cats that get into those situations and they don’t speak on it; they don’t meet it head on because they’re actually guilty and they feel like they got something to hide.” 

In a number of striking albums, including You Only Live 2wice and Freddie, Gibbs addressed the situation directly, often revealing vulnerability, insecurity and trepidation even over the murkiest of trap beats. Despite these albums being continued exhibitions of lyrical prowess, they hardly furthered Gibbs’s bid as a member of hip-hop royalty. For that to happen, it became obvious that he would have to turn to his old partner, the Beat Konducta himself, Madlib. This time around, however, things have been radically changed.

If Madvillainyis both a musical and lyrical attempt to challenge the listener to keep up with the boundless rhymes and complex production, Bandanafeels like Madlib not only testing his audience, but his rapper too. He offers Gibbs some of his most impenetrable, multifarious and eclectic beats yet, rammed with beat switches, vocal samples and often murderous 808s. To think he made all these beats on his iPad. Happily, Gibbs passes with flying colours.

The same triumphant boasting is there, alongside the usually witty cultural references. Just think of his self-identification with Johnny Sacrimoni from The Sopranosin ‘Palmolive’, or Sugar Ray Robinson and John Wick in ‘Half Manne Half Cocaine’. But if you think this is all vapid showboating, rest assured, Gibbs’s lyrics have also developed a cutting, political edge. He announced in ‘Crushed Glass’ back in 2017 that “Donald Trump gon’ chain us up and turn back to slaves”, and his criticism of the president continues on Bandana. Gibbs’s ultimate preoccupation is with figures of black power, from Allen Iverson to Melvin Williams to Tupac himself. This is further enhanced by the revered selection of guests on this album. As spectacular as it is to hear Black Thought and Yasiin Bey on a Madlib beat, it is  in fact Pusha T that steals the show. Who else could rap “It was snowfall and Reagan gave me the visual, Obama opened his doors knowing I was a criminal” with such conviction, such assuredness and vigour. 

However, we all know that true classics need an element of emotional variation, a certain nuance that confirms them to be true depictions of the complex human psyche. Every ‘Ready to Die’ needs a ‘Suicidal Thoughts’, every ‘Illmatic’ needs a ‘Life’s a Bitch’, every ‘My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’ needs a ‘Who Gon Survive In America’. Gibbs’s time in prison has hardened his determinations but softened his soul, stopping this album from becoming topically stale. No song typifies this struggle, this mental war, more than ‘Practice’, a song that, instrumentally speaking, lulls, ebbs and swoons and sets the stage for an expected tirade of misogyny. Subverting this expectation, however, Gibbs grants authority and knowledge to a woman he confesses to have cheated on, who tells him “you need to come home with your daughter, nothing more important than your baby”. He, in the next line, concedes that “drugs got me crazy”. The fact that Gibbs can depict his internal angst with the same lucid vividness with which he sketches his external battles with the law is a good sign. It shows that he is becoming more well-rounded, more precise and more transparent. If he continues in this vain, he may very soon find himself at the uppermost echelon of hip-hop.