When Freddie Gibbs first arrived on the mixtape and blog scene a few years ago, he had a couple of big selling points. There was the staggering technical mastery, of course, the fluidity and speed with which he spun his rich hardnose baritone through gratifyingly guttural comfort-good crime-rap beats. But there was also the backstory: A kid from a forgotten and deeply downtrodden Midwestern town who had somehow landed himself a major-label contract, then languished on that label’s shelf for years despite clearly evident talent and hunger. When he left and kicked up a small fury with his mixtapes, it was a real underdog-triumph moment. Then he stuck around those internet-rap circles for a while, bringing his hard-slamming live show to unlikely indie rock festival setttings, and people started to notice that his actual star quality — the personality, the originality, the ability to put together indelible choruses — was a bit lacking. When he signed with Young Jeezy’s CTE label, it just seemed weird; like, how would these vastly different rappers interact and share the same context? It was the same feeling I got a little while later, when Rick Ross signed Stalley. But Gibbs sounded great breathing fire onto the end of hard-glinting Jeezy tracks. And now we’ve got Baby Face Killa, which is really Gibbs’ first mixtape now that he’s back in major-label rap orbits, his first effort as one of the guys who immediately crashes DatPiff for a little while when his mixtape drops. As it turns out, this whole context suits him just fine. He done good.
Baby Face Killa has only been on my hard drive for a couple of days, and it’s a massive slab of music to ingest: 18 songs in 71 minutes, with Gibbs delivering most of his verses in that triple-time blur that makes picking out standout lines tough. So forgive me if I’m only scratching the surface of this thing; it’ll take time to see how it stands up to those early Gibbs tapes. But here’s my main takeaway: This is a deeply satisfying piece of hardass street-rap, one that covers a great deal of aesthetic ground without ever compromising Gibbs’ throwback tough-guy persona. There’s just the right amount of guest verses here: Enough that Gibbs’s own voice never gets tedious, not so many that the guests start to overwhelm the guy whose name is on the cover. The production is nicely curated and well-sequenced. DJ Drama and Don Cannon had something to do with putting the tape together, and those guys know what they’re doing. It’s a bit funny that iTunes is selling an untagged version of the tape, with bonus tracks, mostly because I can’t imagine anyone ever needing that. Drama and Cannon’s DJ drops sound consistently awesome — it’s not like this is a grating-ass DJ Holiday tape — and it’s not like anyone could’ve wanted this thing to be longer.
Gibbs, as ever, isn’t the sort of rapper who demands your attention. He doesn’t rely on punchlines or presence. Instead, he dispenses beatdown threats with calm, businesslike efficiency, and his talk becomes a sort of comfortable background thrum. This is utilitarian rider music, then, and for those of us who lament the decline of hard-ass rap in recent years, it serves a simple function admirably. There are a few slight experiments, or rather variations, here: Gibbs trying out sparse L.A. ratchet music for one track, breezy DJ Fresh Bay Area ’80s-funk on another. The only thing that doesn’t work out is the hysterically lame smooth-soul attempt “Middle Of The Night,” and it’s easy enough to just skip over that one. And whenever Jeezy shows up, it’s pretty great: One all clumsy blustering larger-than-life charisma, one all quiet surgical intensity. They complete each other.
Elsewhere, Z-Ro, the unheralded father of Gibbs’s depressive melodious quick-tongue thug style, comes through on a new version of Gibbs’s classic-on-the-internet “Boxframe Cadillac,” and the two sound nice together. Gibbs also works well with hard fundamentalists Jadakiss and Jay Rock on “Krazy,” and as a counterpoint to the eternally laid-back Curren$y on “Tell A Friend.” On “Seventeen,” some uncredited producer turns the mournful Nelson Riddle strings from Frank Sinatra’s “It Was A Very Good Year” into something languidly funky, and Gibbs and Jeezy both have fun with it. On the excellent “Kush Cloud,” it’s Gibbs, Krayzie Bone, and SpaceGhostPurrp wrapping dizzy singsong flows around a ridiculously hazy sample that I can’t quite place. (I was, at first, pretty sure that it was Björk’s “Possibly Maybe,” but now I’m almost certain that’s not it.) And on the tape’s closer “Every City,” he does nice work over the beat from the recent 2 Chainz album track “I’m Diffrent,” though that last one might just be a matter of DJ Mustard selling the same beat to two rappers.
So yeah: Lots of good stuff here, all held together with enough connective tissue that it feels like a complete experience, not a thrown-together hour of music. It doesn’t quite prove Gibbs to be a star in the making, but it does, once again, prove that he’s a dependable and durable talent — one who, we now know, doesn’t lose his power when his production budget gets a whole lot higher.
Download Baby Face Killa for free here.