Freddie Gibbs and Madlib’s ‘Bandana’ is the Sound of Two Rap Veterans at the Height of their Powers

Freddie Gibbs and Madlib are two larger-than-life figures who carry diametric mystiques. Gibbs is the Rust Belt hero, the world-beating outlaw who bathes with snakes and has been serving impregnable street raps since ‘09. Madlib is much more elusive but no less prolific—the perpetually shroomed-out producer who spends his days mining obscure samples from his vast record library that, as of 2014, weighed an estimated four tons. He is the closest thing in hip hop to an actual wizard.

Piñata, Gibbs and Madlib’s 2014 joint album, proved them to be a match made in heaven. It was like a latter-day Blaxploitation flick; Gibbs’ lucid reflections on hot summers selling dope in his native Gary, Indiana meshed easily with Madlib’s immaculate beats, all soul samples and trembling, sun-drenched strings radiating nostalgia as if refracted through golden cellophane. Fans have been waiting impatiently for the follow-up, Bandana, ever since Madlib first teased it in 2016, when he mentioned that the album would include material from the six beat CDs he had sent to Kanye West during the Life of Pablo sessions. (“Freddie Gibbs took all of it and rapped over everything. Kanye waited too long.”) Bandana is weirder, more freewheeling, more Madlib-y than its predecessor. Gibbs remains unphased; he fields each beat like Omar Vizquel and splits it down the middle with raw charisma, torrential flows, and economic, impactful writing. The end result is glorious—the sound of two rap veterans still working at the height of their powers, testing the outer limits of their native chemistry, only to discover that those limits might not exist.

On Bandana, Madlib draws from similar source material as Piñata but dramatically repackages it. The production here is more playful and restless. One beat rarely sustains a song from start to finish. Most songs finish with an unexpected, palette-cleansing coda—Gibbs muttering to the engineer from the recording booth, a Japanese man earnestly encouraging the listener to “light the motherfucking weed up, bitch.” Meanwhile, a handful of hairpin-turn, mid-song beat switches give Bandana the brisk, informal structure of a Five Fingers of Death freestyle. While the first half of “Flat Tummy Tea” is like a climactic chase scene, the second half feels like drawing open the curtains in a hungover stupor. “Half Manne Half Cocaine” pivots from sleek, softly twinkling trap bells to hissing cymbals, unintelligible background hollers, and murky left hand piano. Gibbs operates as a countervailing force who grounds Bandana by reliably churning out one tightly coiled verse after another.

Gibbs is so charismatic, it’s easy to forget how sharp his pen can be. On the standout track “Cataracts,” he alternates between sweeping, cinematic self-portraits (“Nine extended, clip attached, swinging it like a battle axe”) and alliterative gems (“Turkey bacon bitch like my toast buttered on both sides”). A strong political, anti-authoritarian undercurrent runs through Bandana, as Gibbs seamlessly integrates raised middle fingers to Jeff Sessions, the LAPD and the cop who killed Terrence Crutcher into his well-worn cocaine cowboy routine. These themes mix naturally; Gibbs is a dissenter by nature. He estimates he wrote 80% of Bandana in 2016 in his Austrian jail cell, playing Madlib’s beats in his head as he awaited trial for a sexual assault charge. (He was later acquitted.) His righteous anger boils over on songs like “Flat Tummy Tea,” where he uncorks the most stunning run of the entire album: “Crackers came to Africa, ravaged, raffled, and rummaged me / America was the name of they fuckin’ company / Stackin’ niggas like cargo over and under me / Pick cotton balls and the coca leaf off the money tree.” Bandana may be sequenced according to the beat of Madlib’s wonky drum, but it vibrates with Gibbs’ sense of purpose. Guest features from illustrious peers like Pusha T, Killer Mike, and Mos Def are almost peripheral.

Bandana is Madlib’s first album in four years, but it feels like a huge moment for Gibbs in particular. It is the first full-length he’s ever released through a major label, which means that the lead-up to this album goes all the way back to 2007, when Interscope unceremoniously dropped him. In the past year, he’s continued to demonstrate his ability to thrive in disparate production styles, be it the smoky, dimly lit mafia backrooms of Fetti or the distorted, hard-body 808s of Freddie. But even at the time of their release, these projects felt like preludes to Bandana, an album that somehow exceeds the lofty expectations he and Madlib set with Piñata. Gibbs is now 37, almost old enough to qualify him for a rap AARP card, but on Bandana, he sounds more vital than ever. “Real Gs move in silence like Giannis,” he raps, finally ready to receive an ovation worthy of an MVP.

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