Ten years ago, the ever-perplexing producer Madlib released Madvillainy along with equally-enigmatic rapper and producer MF Doom. The result broke half the rules of hip-hop and then went on to rewrite the second half; Madvillainy has no hooks, most songs are around two minutes long, and it’s loosely based, of all things, on Doom’s supervillain persona. But its quirks ended up being its strengths. Madlib’s dusty, soulful jazz samples and Doom’s vaudeville cypher-laced verses turned this oxymoron of a record into an instant classic.
Now Madlib has released another album-length hip-hop project, and he’s chosen the farthest thing from MF Doom for a partner in crime; Indiana rapper Freddie Gibbs. Gibbs is a bona-fide street-bred gangster rapper with wordplay and flow that’s more akin to Tupac or even 50 Cent than Doom or any of his contemporaries. Gibbs and Madlib, who specializes in dusty, abstract jazz and soul samples, are about as unlikely a pairing as you could ever get.
Nevertheless, the product of their joint efforts, Piñata, is as cohesive and impactful as any project either of them has ever made. Gibbs’ chops as a rapper are unquestionable, bringing a variety of Southern, West Coast, and East Coast rapping tactics to match Madlib’s beats, which on many of these tracks sound a bit like a cross between an early Kanye West and Dr. Dre. Indeed, many of these tracks sound like a marriage of the new-school and the old. “Thuggin” is a smooth, luxurious ride of a beat that Gibbs flips into the scene of a shooting with what is best described as some straight gangster shit. Gibbs is no studio gangster; when he talks about blowing a rival’s head off on the smooth jam “Harold’s”, you better believe him.
While it stands at a boggling 17 tracks, this album scarcely ever has a low point, thanks in no small part to Gibbs’ incredible skill and a strong collection of featured rappers. “Scarface” shows “Real” is a menacing jam where Gibbs comes out growling like Meechy Darko of the Flatbush Zombies, who also appears on the album’s title track. “Robes” opens up with the best verse Domo Genesis has done in quite some time and then follows it up with a tongue-tied barrage from other Odd Future rapper Earl Sweatshirt, leaving Gibbs to anchor the song with a verse that, maybe to the chagrin of his two Odd Future friends, opens with the line. “Fuck every rapper and his entourage”. On “High”, Gibbs enlists Danny Brown, the only rapper crazier than he is, to drop 16 bars over a slippery, guitar-driven beat. It’s hard to pick what’s more impressive; Madlib’s intricate, perfectly-mixed production, or the fact that Gibbs can so easily keep up with it.
Still though, this album does have its flaws. As entertaining as the return of the gangster is, Gibbs doesn’t have much more to offer in terms of theme- perhaps why Madlib’s production is so important. And even Madlib’s production style gets a little bit too jazz-heavy for the ears. It’s a winning formula that just gets repeated a little bit too often. Luckily, other guest rappers help tide you over for the full listen, especially Raekwon, Ab-Soul, and the aforementioned Danny Brown.
Pinata is instantly accessible, yet loaded with replay value. It’s both a return to basics and a breaking of boundaries. And while it can be repetitive, its best tracks are loaded with replay value. Much like its namesake, Piñata is good on the surface and excellent on the inside.