What Freddie Gibbs has managed to do very well on ESGN is showcase his signature sound. Tales of Gary, IN. street life are peppered in an album of hard-hitting trap beats, making it clear that he hasn’t compromised his aesthetic in order to sell albums. While these speak on his strength and growth as an artist, what he hasn’t been able to do thus far is establish his character. The album works as the next chapter in his long career of street-hustle rap, but fails to serve as an effective introduction on what technically qualifies as his debut album.
Gibbs resists the urge to turn his gangster rap image into an over-the-top shtick, an impressive feat in the age of Chief Keef and Waka Flock Flame. However, he also shies away from introspection on the harrowing lifestyle his raps document (and often glorify). In doing so, he ends up not quite hitting either mark; he constructs a façade of bleak, emotional disconnect that’s difficult for the listener to penetrate. Absent are emotionally charged confessional cuts like “National Anthem (Fuck the World)” and “Shame.” Instead, while tracks like “One Eighty Seven” retain his street-hardened edge, they sometimes seem to lack a beating heart.
Some may argue that this is intentional, purporting to showcase the battle between the positive aspects of his lifestyle (money, cars, girls) with the negative (murders, lost friends and family). However, the album never explores that theme in any substantial way. Rather, it leaves the listener to connect the dots themselves, as though he gave out the ingredients to a meal without the recipe.
Fortunately, several songs manage to break the mold. On “Freddie Soprano,” the former CTE member frets the omnipresence of drug addiction in hip-hop, while “The Real G Money” finds him reminiscing on selling cocaine as an 8th-grader. “Hustlin’, jackin’, murder and mackin’ been such a part of me/ Such an evil seed wonder what will my son or daughter be?” he worries. It’s moments like these—where he abandons the album’s pervasive sense of numbness—that work most effectively. Other bright spots include the bass-bumping single “Eastside Moonwalker” and the jazzy instrumentals of “Dope in My Styrofoam.”
None of this criticism is to say that ESGN is a bad album. Freddie is a talented rapper with great flow and a wise selection of collaborators, and many songs are individually effective. Rather, it is simply an album that lacks a clear perspective on the many heavy topics it tackles. A first time listener may walk away feeling very familiar with Freddie Gibbs’ sound, but still unsure of who exactly he is.—Chris Mench