Lil Bibby might have the world’s least intimidating rap name. It evokes the following things: Smallness, actual babies, and journeyman NBA point guard Mike Bibby, who had a nice run with the early-’00s Sacramento Kings but who was never exactly Ron Artest. (Maybe I should be happy that Lil Bibby didn’t go with “Lil Laettner” or “Lil Korver” or “Lil Greg Oden” or something, but still.) Based on the name alone, I expected him to rap in an exaggerated mouse-squeak, and this couldn’t be further from the truth. Bibby is part of the young Chicago rap zeitgeist, but he has the voice of a middle-aged survivor. Even compared to his wizened old-soul young peers like Chief Keef and Lil Reese, Bibby sounds gnarled and ancient. If not for the drill music church-bells and occasional Auto-Tune on Free Crack, his excellent debut solo mixtape, Bibby could pass for one of the ancient tough-guy veterans who show up on DJ Premier beats these days. He sounds more like Blaq Poet or Sean Price than he does like any of his generational contemporaries. The rap critic Noz already pointed this out on Twitter, but his closest vocal doppelganger is actually Hell Rell, the permanent Dipset B-teamer (an impression only strengthened when a Cam’ron soliloquy from the gloriously awful straight-to-DVD movie Killa Season, which starred Rell, shows up as a skit on Free Crack.) That Rell similarity might be a problem for you. It’s not a problem for me.
On Free Crack, Bibby pulls off a neat trick: He sounds both of his time and completely outside it. Musically, Free Crack mostly belongs in the Chicago drill-music category, even though he insists, on “Unlike You,” that “this is not no drill shit,” that it’s “real rap.” The production is bleak and hard and intense — that old brutal Three 6 Mafia sound, resurrected a few years ago by Waka Flocka Flame and Lex Luger, reflected through the soul-deadening cold of a Chicago winter. Bibby, like Keef and Lil Durk and all the others, raps about drugs and violence, and he doesn’t sound all that conflicted about any of it. Keef collaborator Young Chop produces one track. Bibby also lets in plenty of the sonic hallmarks of circa-2013 rap: Future-esque chorus robot-gurgles, keyboard oscillations, churning synth-strings, the odd double-time verse. He’s the latest recipient of the apparently all-important Drake co-sign. He checks all the next-big-thing boxes.
And yet he seems to actively push against the moment, against everything it represents, in ways that go way beyond his scarred, throaty delivery. On the swollen, anthemic “Bibby Story,” he seems to throw a direct shot at Keef and his drill-music peers: “These niggas illiterate and ignorant / They not even completing sentences.” And producer DJ L’s beautiful chopped-up strings on that track point out something else: Bibby is just as comfortable, if not more so, when he’s rapping over older, more classicist production styles. “Water,” the single, is triumphant Just Blaze-style chipmunk-soul, and “If You Knew,” with its cut-up music boxes and its dusty drums, is full-on ’90s-style boom-bap. Similarly, he’s got a hardnosed but wide-open emotional honesty; like, say, Z-Ro, he can rap about struggling without coming off as a struggle-rapper. On “Water,” he practically spells it out: “Feel like I don’t give a fuck / Sometimes I need a hug / But I’m all alone.” “Stressing” is explicitly a song about doing every drug he can find to calm his stress and failing anyway. With his technical ease, his stylistic fluidity, and his willingness to head into real-talk territory, Bibby arrives here fully-formed as a. versatile, forceful presence.
More than that, though, he knows how to put together songs. Free Crack isn’t especially well-mastered, and its skits and DJ Scream’s chatter are annoying as all fuck, big factors that make the tape a harder sell. But the choruses, whether sung or chanted, stick hard, and Bibby has a powerful chemistry with frequent collaborators Lil Herb and King Louie, the only guests here. And when you spend enough time with tracks like “Water” and “Bibby Story,” they start to feel big, taking on a totemic power. Despite all the age in that voice, Bibby is young as hell, and he’s still developing his style and his viewpoint. But on Free Crack, he sounds tough and vital, and he’s well on his way toward becoming something truly special.
Download Free Crack here.