The collaboration between Freddie Gibbs and Madlib doesn’t seem natural at first—the hardest rapper out of Gary, IN. working with a notoriously reclusive producer who invented his own jazz group? But when soulful but hard-hitting tracks like “Shame” and “Thuggin’” began to surface, they set both a clear tone for what MadGibbs would sound like and a high bar for their full LP. On the long-awaited Piñata, Madlib and Gibbs smash that bar and stick the jagged pieces to your throat, producing an early but strong contender for album of the year.
Listening to pretty much any track on Piñata makes it clear that MadGibbs is a match made in rap heaven—the two bring out each other’s strengths and shore up weaknesses. Madlib produces endless beats, but often doesn’t give them to the most talented MCs, while Gibbs is one of the most technically talented, best gangsters in the game, but has found many of his solo projects criticized for a lack of focus. No one could say that about Piñata, which is unbelievably consistent and well crafted over its 17 tracks (in particular the transition of the “Lakers”/”Knicks” double feature). Even “Supplier,” Piñata’s instrumental intro, distinguishes itself from the rest of Madlib’s beat work—there’s something darker and more restrained, something meaner, about it that makes it clear that it was made for Freddie Gibbs, and for Piñata.
As with any Madlib-produced record, those instrumentals alone would be enough to justify buying Piñata twice. This time out, the Loop Digga brings his sampling A-game to craft a late night soundscape of dense, driving beats that sound like they’ll come after you themselves before Freddie even starts rhyming. Madlib creates a sonic obstacle course for Gangsta Gibbs, full of rich, flow-overwhelming sounds (“Shitsville”), time shifts (“Uno”), and tracks where Madlib loses interest entirely and switches to a different instrumental (“Real”). But with every verse, Gibbs rises to the challenge, staying on point and rhyming around everything the Beat Konducta throws at him. Just a few days short of a decade after the release of Madvillainy, Madlib has finally found another rapper undeniably worthy of his time.
On most of the tracks on Piñata, the ESGN kingpin opts for a more laid-back, smoother, and quietly confident flow. He’s still the consummate gangsta, but instead of going after his enemies (with one notable exception), he’s smoking a blunt at 2 A.M., looking out on his empire. For all that he appears larger-than-life on Piñata, he also makes room to be human. On “Bomb,” Gibbs “got an ice maker for a heart” but isn’t afraid to show the cracks in his thugging, recounting heartbreak on “Deeper” and litany of demons on “Broken.” (Gibbs openly cried about the death of a friend at his first show with Madlib in Chicago during “Knicks”, and got even more love from the audience.)
Gibbs doesn’t let up—the deliberate pace of Piñata just makes him an even more menacing presence. And his restraint builds tension until he finally lets loose with his long awaited Jeezy diss track. To put it lightly, “Real” drops a nuclear bomb on Jeezy as Gibbs walks away from the explosion, unscathed. It’s an almost-perfect assault, starting from a place of love (“I looked up to you”) before Gibbs comes at Jeezy’s head (“You wanna be Jay Z nigga, you just a fucking puppet”). “Real” is more than hot enough to earn Freddie the title of “Snowman killer.”
If Piñata has a weakness, it’s the number of guest verses, all of which are at least decent, but still detract from the MadGibbs show. Scarface and Raekwon fit into the world Piñata creates, but they’re still uninteresting side characters in Gibbs’ badass action movie—even Danny Brown, whose double-time verse on “High” almost steals the whole album, is planted firmly in a comedic supporting role. The loose assemblage on album-closing posse cut “Piñata” doesn’t nearly do justice to how great the rest of the album is, letting down and dragging out what should be a thundering finale. Madlib and Freddie Gibbs are both total pros who knew exactly what they wanted out of Piñata, went out, and did it. Having anyone else interfere with that perfection is just a damn shame.—Eric Thurm