Freddie Gibbs gets eclectic without sacrificing any of his gangster realness.
At this point, there's a version of Freddie Gibbs for every breed of hip hop fan. Old head? Try midwestgangstaboxframecadillacmuzik, the 2009 outing where he pays homage to icons like Outkast and Tupac. Mid-2000s street rap addict? Gibbs' stint with Jeezy's CTE label checks that box, especially on the album ESGN. Drill fanatic? Try "Deuces," a gem of a Young Chop-produced loosie. Backpacker who always keeps a dimebag within reach? Last year's Pinata is your best option for a Madlib-helmed weirdo opus since Madvillainy. Over the course of his still-young career, Gangsta Gibbs has tried on a number of hats, each as satisfying as the next, his street-hardened, old-school thuggery finding ways to seep into the cracks of nearly any style that exists in the 2010s. True to its title, his new project proves beyond a Shadow Of A Doubt that Gibbs has become today's most versatile artist without sacrificing an ounce (or brick) of his realness, even though it's probably his most diverse release to date.
This aspect of the album is perfectly highlighted by the snippet from Gibbs' GGN interview that appears at the end of "McDuck," in which Snoop Dogg observes that Gibbs sounds like he's "not from nowhere," able to define the sound of Gary, Indiana by himself. Rather than veering towards prevailing Chicago sounds (which is just a few miles away), he seems hellbent on being unclassifiable. Dude's done some unthinkably mismatched shit in his time, as is obvious from the track record referenced above, but when he dropped off a pair of SOAD tracks that featured ATL goon rapper ManMan Savage and Late Night With Jimmy Fallon regular Black Thought, respectively, I thought he'd lost his mind. Yet again, he proved me wrong. "Packages" and "Extradite" couldn't be more different, one a Tarentino-produced drug slangin' banger, and the other a dank, familiar-sample-deploying nostalgia trip, but their quality was undeniable. What's more, Freddie kept a level head throughout, never sinking into the Future imitations that have plagued so many out-of-towners attempts at A-Town sounds or trying to hang with Black Thought's wordy reputation on some "lyrical spiritual miracle" shit. This grounded charisma courses through almost all of his work, but it stands out even more when he's paired with rappers who don't match his style (because honestly, in 2015, who does?).
Instead of fixating on some "I was born too late" version of decades-old gangster rap-- as he's done a few times at this point-- Gibbs manages to give it a skillful facelift, incorporating interesting sounds, familiar turns of phrase and sprinklings of melody. A good deal of Shadow Of A Doubt's (criminally uncredited) production is pretty progressive, taking the chilly sonics of Drake's If You're Reading This It's Too Late even further under the ice, adding ghostly screwed up synths, moaning sub-bass and reverberating keys to amp up the Great Lakes-in-winter vibe. He clearly pays attention to what's trendy in modern rap, and knows how to update his sound without exposing himself to the danger of out-of-character moments. Never sounding like he's trying too hard seems to be his mantra, after all, as he observes on "Narcos," "Dope game hard / Rap game easy than a motherfucker."
Despite his best efforts to make it seem like it comes naturally, he's been working on his singing a lot, and it shows. Around half of SOAD's tracks have him singing the hooks himself, and on paper, that's a sign for worry, especially if you remember his attempt at singing TLC's "Waterfalls" during a Pinata interlude. But as seems to be the case anytime Gibbs adds a new feather to his hat, he goes all in on the thug serenades, bringing the sort of passion and emotion that rarely pop up in his workmanlike rapping. Whether he's mimicking the sample on "Careless," using melody as a subtle enhancer on "Fuckin' Up The Count," getting soulful on "McDuck," or baptizing his voice in auto-tune on "Basketball Wives," he sounds great, and makes singing yet another aspect of his music that's defined by his versatility.
The best tracks on SOAD are the most specific ones. Gangster rap usually has limited subject matter, and though Gibbs is able to keep us interested through endless drop offs and pick ups, his approach definitely strengthens when he hones in on the little things that outsiders wouldn't think of. "Fuckin' Up The Count" contrasts the large sums of dirty money Gibbs hides around his and his mother's houses with the fact that he has to hide it, paranoia creeping into every word, especially the ones copped from a much more celebratory take on trapping. It bowls you over, with dialog samples from "The Wire" providing context for his words, ending up as this year's sharpest, most honest depiction of dealing. On the other end of the spectrum, "Basketball Wives" uses blurry sonics and romantic pining as respite from this life, even as it colors his every word (this dude's so devoted to his work that he chops up bricks while having sex). Gibbs is as skilled a storyteller as any in the game right now, and when zooms in on specific moments or aspects of his life, we're given a better sense of his personality than on the less specific, more all-encompassing lifestyle tracks. Shadow Of A Doubt is too spread out to be a game-changing release, but if Gibbs can apply this approach to a more ambitious concept, he'll have no trouble making bonafide classics.