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‘Piñata’ Doesn’t Disappoint

| Sunday, March 23, 2014

pinata_graphic_webMaria Massa | The Observer

It makes sense to start with a very simple, appropriate metaphor: Freddie Gibbs and Madlib’s “Piñata” is very much a piñata. It’s chock full of candy — class-A, tasty beats done justice by a skilled wordsmith. The pieces here are unified by each artist’s recognizable style — Gibbs’ smooth yet highly-focused flow and Madlib’s penchant for slightly off-beat, sample-rich instrumentals.  Yet there is no greater concept at work in “Piñata”; it’s simply a showcase for the musical talent of the collaborators. Is that a bad thing? Given the consistent quality of the tracks on “Piñata,” the answer is a quick and resounding no.

“Piñata” hits the ground running with intro “Supplier,” which melds themes of artistic ambition with Gibbs’ rough past as a drug dealer over an incredibly groovy drum sample. “Supplier” then leads directly into “Scarface,” an account of the past hinted at in the intro over another groove-tastic beat. “Piñata” remains in very similar territory for the entirety of the album; beats meld together from track to track while Gibbs’ lyrics crisscross from his past to his present.

However, the album is saved from repetition and staleness through the clear chemistry of the lyricist and beatmaker. On “Deeper,” a string line sits in back of warped vocal samples while Gibbs weaves conflicting feelings about women into a tale of infidelity. The conflicting intensity and complexity of such feelings become more urgent against Madlib’s smooth production. On “Shitsville,” one of the record’s fastest, most intense tracks, Freddie’s flow races note-for-note against a violin sample. This in turn pushes the song’s topic, a harsh criticism of gangster pride, to the forefront.

In addition, the album boasts a plethora of left-turns that reward continued listens and close attention. On “High,” the lightweight beat dissolves into an even hazier affair following the last verse, mirroring the subject matter in the song to great effect. Closer “Piñata” melds Halloween arpeggios, eastern-sounding strings and a Hollywood-orchestra sample to create a strangely intimidating soundscape. After six minutes, the beat drops into a bare-bones, infomercial-like tom-tom beat. Then a vocal sample of a tense argument crawls out to top it, creating an altogether confusing and eerie affair. This is immediately followed by a humorously bad, and hardly understandable, a cappella improvised song. But through such twists and turns, the artists are able to flaunt their skills while keeping the record light-hearted and approachable.

Another factor that keeps the record afloat is the impressive guest roster, which spans from established voices like Raekwon and Scarface to indie-phenomena Earl Sweatshirt and Danny Brown to up-and-comers like Casey Veggies and Mac Miller (up-and-coming in the experimental/indie scene vs. the popular rap scene). Each artist is placed in a suitable context, each rapper matched with a theme they’re experienced rhyming about. This highlights and makes the most of each feature while complimenting Freddie’s ability to hop from topic to topic.

From its solo affairs to its guest features, “Piñata” is a demonstration of experts at work. It’s simply the product of a group of experienced artists doing what they’re best at; the product is a very consistent, high-quality rap record. Sure, “Piñata” doesn’t break down walls or present a grand message, but it doesn’t need to. “Piñata” is great rap music, nothing more and certainly nothing less.

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