A quick note: I haven’t heard Adele’s 25 yet. Nobody has. I bet it’s good, though!
There is a phenomenon, discussed in certain rap-nerd circles, known as Black Thought Syndrome. (I believe the great rap writer Noz coined the term, though I’m not sure.) The idea behind it is that certain rappers — most notably, the longstanding lead Roots rapper — have so much technical skill but so little personality that their raps, while impressive, can also feel oddly lifeless. Rappers who suffer from Black Thought are flow technicians, masters of breath control and syllable placement, who never seem to break through to rap’s upper echelon because they don’t have that indefinable charisma that the job necessitates. They can’t embody their moment or project their enthusiasm. The sounds of their voices aren’t going to make you feel glad to be alive. The problem with the whole theory, of course, is that Black Thought is fucking awesome. “Adrenaline“? “Web“? Big Pun’s “Super Lyrical“? The Tonight Show bit where he had to rap about Hot Pockets and Channing Tatum? He’s incredible! He’s a machine!
The same is true of Freddie Gibbs, a ’90s-throwback street-rapper from a barren Indiana town who never changes his tone of voice but who gets over anyway based on pure rapping ability. Gibbs’ whole origin story comes from the moment his major label dropped him, sending off on his mixtape grind and on the journey that would lead him to internet-celebrated underground-rap semi-stardom. And honestly, it’s not impossible to hear why Interscope let him go. The rap marketplace is not exactly begging for dead-eyed virtuoso tough talk, and it’s hard to imagine Gibbs ever making hits. But that doesn’t make him any less of a riveting rapper, and his new Shadow Of A Doubt is among the best things he’s ever done.
The best thing that Gibbs has ever done remains Piñata, the album that he and Madlib put out last year. Madlib did something for Gibbs that Gibbs wasn’t able to do for himself: He gave Gibbs a sonic identity. Gibbs will rap over anything, which is both a strength and a weakness. When he first came to mixtape infamy, he was rapping over Just Blaze and Polow Da Don beats, leftover from his major-label days. In the years that followed, we heard him rapping over undistinguised underground thud-rap, over post-blog-house dance beats, and over Statik Selektah’s not-bad DJ Premier-style ’90s boom-bap beats. During the period that Gibbs was signed to Young Jeezy’s CTE label, we heard him over the churning, gurgling, monolithic gothic synth-rap that Jeezy loves so much.
Gibbs sounded good over all of it: Booming and nimble and authoritative. But that whole time, he never developed anything resembling a signature sound. Instead, he sounded adrift, ready to unleash his bracing double-time skills over whatever beat floated into his inbox. When he teamed up with Madlib, it seemed like an unlikely combination, given that Madlib tends to favor rappers as stoned and digressive as his beats are. But Gibbs didn’t have to switch up his style at all to fit Madlib’s tracks — he never switches up his style — and the contrast between Madlib’s cloudy sputters and Gibbs’ laser-focused intensity was a good thing. It brought out the best in both of them. And with its guestlist of on-fire collaborators and wizened veterans, the album also felt like a summit meeting of rap’s internet underground, everyone doing their best to shine.
Gibbs’ new solo album Shadow Of A Doubt isn’t Piñata, but it does show that Gibbs has internalized that album’s lessons. Other than Piñata, it’s his most sonically cohesive album, and it’s the one that comes closest to showing what a Freddie Gibbs sound could be. More importantly, it’s the first album on which Gibbs doesn’t sound like a throwback. Again, he’s kept his style intact, rapping about drug deals and oppressive environments with inhuman precision. But this time around, he’s got a production palette that’s up-to-date without being obnoxiously trendy.
There’s a lot of synthetic drift on this record, and there are moments where it drifts close to the codeine-rap coming out of Atlanta right now. The florid “Mexico,” with Tory Lanez, sounds like what might happen if you gave a really good Travi$ Scott track to someone who could actually rap. “Packages” has tingly pianos and gut-rumble bass tones, and it finds Gibbs letting a crackly strain into his voice that we don’t often here. Gibbs straight-up sings in Auto-Tune on “Basketball Wives,” though it’s more of an old-soul-singer baritone rumble than the sort of thing the kids are doing today. But even though the production nods toward things currently happening in rap, it’s anchored to ’90s rap-fundamentalist sounds. The ringing tones on the single “Fuckin’ Up The Count” are the sort of things that DJ Premiere might’ve chopped up 20 years ago. “Insecurities” is all low-key eeriness. The whole album has an emptied-out chilliness that reminds of of Bone Thugs-N-Harmony’s E. 1999 Eternal or Twista’s Adrenaline Rush — the albums that shaped the ’90s Midwest rap sound that were probably part of the air when Gibbs was growing up.
The whole Black Thought Syndrome thing still applies. The only song with real rap-star guests is “10 Times,” with E-40 and a great (albeit who-knows-how-old) Gucci Mane verse. And when those guys are on, they blow Gibbs off the track through sheer force of personality. They’re explosive goofs where Gibbs is a true technician, and while it’s a good song, it’s not a great match. But Gibbs’ versatile flow is so goddam pleasant that most of the album fades into the background in a really nice way. It’s rap comfort food. And its best song is “Extradite,” on which Gibbs and the actual Black Thought team up to just wreck a knife-edge minor-key beat.
The track, from produce Mikhail, cycles in all these familiar samples from older rap songs while pushing them into unfamiliar places. And both Gibbs and Black Thought absolutely go nuts on the song. It’s great to hear Black Thought stepping away from his Tonight Show stool, rhyming “Anarchist Cookbook” with “Tom Ford spring/summer lookbook” and just sounding harder than I’ve heard him sound in years. And it’s great to hear Gibbs matched up with someone who can match him for both intensity and technical fluidity. The song works as a breathless rap clinic, and it’s the kind of thing that both of these guys should be doing. When both of them can rap like that, it seems stupid to complain about whatever they’re not doing.
Shadow Of A Doubt is out 11/20 on ESGN.
Other albums of note out this week:
• Adele’s retro-soul blockbuster 25.
• Arca’s gurgling, off-kilter instrumental LP Mutant.
• Jonny Greenwood, Shye Ben Tzur, and the Rajasthan Express’ collaborative LP Junun.
• Total Abuse’s scuzzed-out hardcore attack Excluded.
• Shunkan’s warm, emotive indie debut The Pink Noise.
• ILoveMakonnen’s apparently-actually-arriving ILoveMakonnen 2.
• Hurricane #1’s long-awaited Brit-rock comeback Find What You Love And Let It Kill You.
• Stove’s jangled DIY debut Is Stupider.
• Six Organs Of Admittance’s complex, intimate Hexadic II.
• The Silence’s Japanese psych zone-out Hark The Silence.
• PWRHUAS’s languid, lo-fi How I Feel About You.
• Sheer’s self-assured garage rock debut Uneasy.
• Mammatus’ blissed-out prog-rock double album Sparkling Waters.
• The Indie For The Holidays compilation.
• Natalie Prass’ Side By Side EP.
• The Blue Jean Committee’s Catalina Breeze EP.
• Kingsley Flood’s The Good Fight EP.
• Danny L Harle’s Broken Flowers EP.
• WoodzSTHLM’s Lighthouse EP.
• FVC’s Walking EP.
• FUNKTIONSLUST’s Window EP.
• Ernie’s Dog Park EP.