Their styles are so different that when they come together, they create something they could not achieve on their own.
Freddie Gibbs and Madlib’s previous album, Piñata, was released so long ago in both rap years and calendar years that Domo Genesis was featured on not one but two tracks. That surprising and successful collaboration tended toward sprawl due to the hands-off approach Madlib took, allegedly giving Gibbs several CDs worth of beats to choose from and rap over as he saw fit. Still, it was a pairing of two of the most talented artists working, and it showed. Bandana is the full flowering of the Gibbs/Madlib collaboration. Working more closely with each other in the studio, the record is more dynamic, concise and impressive: a promise fulfilled.
Gibbs – legendary for his ability to write verses that can flow with any kind of beat – is given the opportunity to show off his skills by Madlib’s ever shifting tempos. At the halfway point (fittingly) of “Half Manne Half Cocaine,” Gibbs swerves from a melodic, staccato flow to a harder edge, spitting along with the beat. Far from feeling like two songs shoved together after the fact, the track remains a cohesive whole while still sounding off-the-cuff. Elsewhere, Gibbs ratchets up the speed of his delivery just to prove that he can. On “Crime Pays,” over laid-back keys and a smooth bass line, Gibbs ups the words-per-second, building tension before giving way to the chorus.
The features are fewer this time around and, as a result pack more of a punch. “Palmolive” has Gibbs trading stories of drug-dealing with Pusha T while Killer Mike holds down the refrain: “make money, more money.” Anderson .Paak lends his neo-soul vocals to “Giannis,” filling in for one of Madlib’s sampled choruses. On “Education,” the record takes a more philosophical turn, bringing in Yasiin Bey (fka Mos Def) and Black Thought. In demonstration of his versatility, Gibbs not only holds his own here but saves the closing verse for himself, slamming the door on the track.
The narrative around Gibbs and Madlib has a significant wrinkle: the beats on Bandana were originally meant not for Freddie Gibbs, but for Kanye West. Once you know this, it puts great soul-inflected cuts like “Freestyle Shit” and the floating, ecstatic “Cataracts” in a new context. It’s easy to see why Kanye would have wanted to distance himself from the “old Kanye” of chopped-up soul. The Madlib track he did take became “No More Parties in LA,” a throwback that fits nicely into the context of The Life of Pablo. Gibbs adds an edge to this material – and, frankly, a lyrical skill – that Kanye is simply incapable of. Gibbs keeps melodies and lyrical themes grounded as he weaves in and out of the dope and rap games. He is pulled in all directions and it agonizes him, but he never gives in to melodrama.
Five years after their first album together, Freddie Gibbs and Madlib continue to yield compelling fruit. That’s not simply because these are two astronomically talented musicians at the top of their game. Rather, these are two men whose different styles, lives, and paths through the music industry are so divergent that when they come together, they create something completely unlike what they could do on their own. What results is one of the best and most interesting rap albums of the year.