Freddie Gibbs- ‘Shadow of a Doubt’ Review
Jack Riedy | Tuesday, November 17, 2015
On his new album “Shadow of a Doubt,” Freddie Gibbs includes a sampled conversation from his appearance on Snoop Dogg’s talk show. Gibbs explains that he got to establish the sound of Gary, Indiana, his hometown, because he was the first rapper to transcend the city’s scene. The elder rapper agrees, saying Gibbs sounds like he’s “not from nowhere.” It’s a ringing endorsement that happens to be stone cold fact.
Freddie Gibbs grew up in Gary, a crime-ridden satellite city to Chicago, and now splits his time between there and Los Angeles. Gibbs surged in popularity last year after the release of “Piñata,” his album with the sampling wizard Madlib. The no-nonsense street rapper and the patchwork globofunk beat maker seemed an unlikely duo in theory, but their work ultimately had creative chemistry to rival “Madvillainy,” the producer’s 2004 album with DOOM. The anachronistic instrumentals and Gibbs’ rhymes added up to a gritty flavor to rival the best low-budget ‘70s crime films. The album hit the Top 40 charts and the duo toured internationally to play for packed festival crowds.
Less than two years later, Gibbs has a new full-length out. He has taken an entirely different direction. “Shadow of a Doubt” finds Gibbs embracing the contemporary sounds of Top 40 rap through a slew of producers. Trap-influenced drums and icy keyboards drive beats by Boi-1da, Mike Dean, Kaytranada and others. Vocal hooks are twisted and distorted into snippets of megaphone chatter, echoing Future and Rae Sremmurd. Tracks “Lately” and “Narcos” in particular seem one Jodeci sample away from the next Drake mixtape. It’s quite a departure for Gibbs — and it succeeds.
One highlight, “10 Times,” is built around a bouncy beat that fuses DJ Mustard’s one-finger vibraphone riffs with snaps and claps influenced by The Neptunes. Gibbs spits boasts about traveling to Chicago, smoking in front of the Trump Tower and calling a girl despite knowing she has a boyfriend. Gucci Mane follows with another chest-puffed verse and E-40 bats clean-up, bringing the same slick energy he brought to Big Sean’s “IDFWU.” All three rappers glide over the instrumental to coast along the groove.
Gibbs’ greatest strength is his flow, versatile enough to lend itself to something new. Gibbs can experiment with different rhythms in one song. On “Packages,” Gibbs raps most of his verse in a furious triplet rhythm, only to stretch out his last few bars in a smooth “Dirty South” cadence. He summarizes himself succinctly in the last line, saying “I keep a pistol on me and a brick on the desk.” Good luck separating him from either.
Obviously, his sense of the streets is intact and as vibrant as ever. Gibbs’ old-school gangsta persona is refreshing. His imagery is stripped of any glamor and excess, utterly focused on the hustle. Drugs are the one and only concern in his raps, leading to the aliases Gangsta Gibbs, Freddie Kane and Freddie Corleone. The topics in his raps grow naturally from that root: “Narcos” contrasts the difficulty of pushing weight with the easiness of the rap industry, while “Mexico” is about traveling south to spend ill-gotten cash. Besides incidental references to Netflix and #BlackLivesMatter, these stories could have been told twenty years ago just as easily as today.
Timeless lyrics and progressive beats are a potent combination in the hands of Freddie Gibbs, but it does not always work out. The album is simply too long, with filler tracks that threaten to force the record down into monotony. “Basketball Wives” is perhaps the most experimental song on the album. Its thick soundscape of sweeter-than-honey synths and Auto-Tuned vocals creates a lullaby effect. What was likely intended to sound narcotic comes out sluggish.
Still, Gibbs’ failures are far more interesting than a lot of hip-hop. He has few contemporary equals in terms of vivid lyrics and sheer rapping ability. Save Pusha T, there is no one else releasing gangsta rap this fresh while maintaining the traditions of hip-hop’s richest subgenre. Snoop Dogg’s presence on the album, even if only in conversation, is revealing. Gibbs is smoking and kicking it with a charismatic, universally beloved dealer-turned-musician who can and will rhyme over every kind of beat. That sort of legendary status seems within reach for the Gary native himself.
The newest Freddie Gibbs album is too uneven to be his best, but it occupies an important, forward-facing part of his discography. Branching out to such progressive production is a bold choice that pays off, bolstered by Gibbs’ consistently excellent rhymes. “Shadow of a Doubt” concludes in a decelerating wash of stuttering modulated keys. Like the static fading off the screen of an unplugged TV, Gibbs leaves listeners bathing in the afterglow of his sound.