I’ve always had a problem with Girl Talk, and my problem has been this: When he piles on those shards of pop hits so quickly that you barely have time to register what the song is before it’s over, I mostly just find myself wishing I could hear the whole damn song. That ADD hyperblitz style is impressive in itself, and I’ve seen it start some serious parties, like that one Pitchfork Festival where people were climbing trees across the street from the festival just so they could get a look at the sweaty bacchanal. But that style mostly just leaves me agitated and distracted, wishing this sweaty guy would stop interrupting these amazing songs. So then I guess my problem with Girl Talk has always been Girl Talk. This says more about me, and probably my advanced age, than it does about Greg Gillis (even though Gillis himself is only slightly younger than me). But in his live shows and his sample-jackhammer albums, I’ve never heard any sense of continuity or narrative thread. He doesn’t take us on a journey; he just throws so many shiny things in our direction that we get overwhelmed. So I was, to put things mildly, dubious about the idea that Gillis was going to make a whole mixtape with a rapper, especially when that rapper turned out to be Freeway.
Freeway is one of the great lost rappers of the early ’00s, an intense and emotive firebreather who, even at his most lighthearted, has always been unafraid to talk about consequences. When Free first emerged as part of Roc-A-Fella’s great State Property subset, he was a fascinating anomaly: A devout Muslim who freely admitted to doing serious dirt, and the tension between his lofty ideas and his immediate and visceral sense of need always drove his music. That was what “What We Do,” his masterpiece of a 2002 single, was about. And Free could flat-out rap better than almost anyone else of his era; his breakneck yowl on songs like “Line Em Up” and Jay-Z’s “1-900-HUSTLER” was a thing of beauty. Free had an incredible chemistry with Just Blaze, whose hectic and claustrophobic widescreen beats made an ideal complement for Free’s general overwhelming intensity. (Other than maybe Jay, no rapper has ever kicked quite so much ass over Just Blaze beats.) But Free never really did party music; even ostensible club tracks like “Roc The Mic” and “Flipside” work because of a violent sort of instability. Free always sounded too frantic to really be having fun. And party music is all Girl Talk does. So how was this going to work?
Really well, it turns out! At six tracks, Broken Ankles lasts just under half an hour, which turns out to be just the right amount of time for both of these guys, whose respective styles can wear thin at album length. And Gillis tweaks his style just enough to bring Freeway into his world without forcing Free to become an entirely different sort of rapper. Gillis certainly piles on the samples on Broken Ankles, as you can see from this partial list of artists sampled. But the whole shock-of-recognition thing that drives his solo work is way less of a factor here; if you can pick out the Add (N) To X or Iannis Xenakis samples, go ahead and award yourself a best-listener medal. Instead, he’s taken these pieces of music and crafted them into actual songs, slowing his sound down to midtempo and stripping it back enough that it won’t get in Free’s way without really losing intensity. On a track like “I Can Hear Sweat,” there’s a ton going on: Busy drums, Nine Inch Nails synth riff, buzzing bass, great little sonar blips on the hook. But all that activity never becomes the center of attention, except maybe on the non-rapped chorus. It’s a cluttered but effective rap beat, and it never distracts from Jadakiss’s absolutely cold-blooded guest verse or from the oddly endearing and goofy moment where Free says something about “reading books by Tom Sawyer.” (Free’s malapropisms are an underrated character trait; I once saw him perform at a Rhymesayers SXSW showcase, shortly after he signed with the label, where he kept shouting out “Rhymeslayers.”)
Gillis’s beats don’t fit Free the way Just Blaze’s once did, but it’s tough to imagine any producer fitting as well with any rapper as those two did. And anyway, not even Just Blaze is making Just Blaze-style beats anymore. It’s nice, after years of floundering, to hear Free finding some direction, even if “Tolerated” might not be sharing space with “Roc The Mic” and “What We Do” in Free’s live show if he’s still doing shows in 10 years. (I really hope Freeway is still doing shows in 10 years.) Free has always been an energy guy, and it’s great to hear someone jerk him out of rap-blog anonymity and giving him some actual energetic music. I’m impressed that Gillis has managed to let some air into some of his beats, as on the reggae-flavored “Tell Me Yeah” or the string-drenched and relatively introspective closer “Lived It,” and it’s fun hearing him throw in little chipmunk-soul callbacks to Free’s peak era. Gillis also keeps the beats dynamic, shifting around elements and preventing anything from getting too static, and he sequences it like a DJ set, so everything flows into everything else. Broken Ankles is more of a fun curio than a career-altering statement from either of these guys. But then again, a fun curio is probably exactly what the world needed from both of these guys right now. It’s already made one afternoon significantly more fun for me, and that’s enough.
Download Broken Ankles at DatPiff.