“[I] didn’t know you was from Gary. And that ain’t no disrespect, you just sound like you not from nowhere.”
That’s Snoop Dogg on an episode of GGN in 2015, describing his first impression of Freddie Gibbs when the Indiana rapper was a guest on the show. It’s true, Gibbs does come from a town without an established sound, but more so than that, he’s seemed like a rap omnivore his entire career. He’s paid homage to Outkast, Scarface, and 2Pac; he’s collaborated with Jeezy, Madlib, Statik Selektah, Freeway, 2 Chainz, Dom Kennedy, Pharrell, Z-Ro, Earl Sweatshirt; he pivots between styles as far-flung as drill, zooted backpack rap, hard-nosed boom bap, g-funk, and old school Southern rap. Nobody’s ever disputed Gibbs’ gift on the mic and knack for beat selection, but getting a handle on who he is and what makes him distinctive has always been a bit of a challenge.
2015’s Shadow Of A Doubt might be the most pronounced example of this to date. On it, he was “Killin’ ’em since Kool Moe Dee, Ra’, Kool, ‘Face” with Black Thought and then wrapping and packaging it up with ManMan Savage three tracks later, singing “Come on let’s roll now/Baby we can smoke out” and then turning around and being a “Cold Ass N****.” Despite the eclecticism, Gibbs stayed on-point and in-the-paint for the majority of the lengthy album, rarely sounding out of place. Even so, it paled in comparison to Piñata, his 2014 collaborative effort with Madlib that was about as keyed-in to a singular aesthetic as a modern rap album can be.
On You Only Live 2wice, a much shorter “album” than either of its predecessors, he’s once again honed in on a well-defined sound, despite fifteen producers being involved in its eight tracks. That sound is a more modern, grounded take on Madlib’s psychedelia that hews pretty close to smoky SOAD cut “Forever And A Day.” The vast majority of YOL2 sounds like it was constructed out of samples by Cortex, the obscure French jazz rock group that has gained a second life by being sampled to death by rappers in the past decade (Whosampled.com lists 70 individual instances of this), even though the only credited sample on here is a Sade flip on “Crushed Glass.” This trippy atmosphere is brought down to earth by trendy, Toronto-style drums, to the extent that two-part opener “20 Karat Jesus”‘ contrast between icy trap and chipmunk soul directly recalls Drake’s “Furthest Thing.” Executive produced by longtime Gibbs collaborator Speakerbomb, this might be the most delicious-sounding Gibbs project ever, the auditory equivalent of the boysenberry creme brûlée jokingly mentioned in the opening track.
Gibbs follows suit with this tighter focus and importance placed on full-bodied whole. Whereas SOAD saw him putting more time into his hooks than ever before– singing them, crafting memorable refrains like the one on “Fuckin’ Up The Count”– he’s decidedly more invested in his rhyme schemes and flows this time. Although I’ve listened to YOL2 about 8-10 times since it dropped, I couldn’t really recite most of its hooks off-top, but there are a good dozen one-liners that are imprinted in my brain. This means that Gibbs isn’t quite as catchy as we know he can be on this album, but it’s in service of a return-to-basics approach to rapping, which I think most of his fans would consider a net positive.
Still clearly a devotee of Scarface and other rugged, workmanlike rappers, Gibbs has now found a way to spread that approach across an entire project without features, without Madlib’s in-your-face production bells and whistles, but with a dose of flashy newness and zeitgeisty earcandy. We’re robbed of out-of-character surprises like “Basketball Wives,” but spared from ill-advised, Mike Dean-helmed plays at EDM trap like “Cold Ass N****.” For eight songs, Freddie Gibbs has found a lane that suits both his Midwest past and his L.A. present, and it’s almost impossible to doubt that it bodes well for his future, wherever that may be and whatever that might sound like.