It’s beautiful out. That’s one of the fucked up things. From all available evidence, we’ve been blessed with a nationwide wave of sunny spring-into-summer weather. At this point, I’ve seen dozens of videos of police beating and manhandling and pepper-spraying and tear-gassing demonstrators while wispy clouds drift lazily across clear blue skies. I wasn’t out in the streets this week, and I probably should’ve been. But I’ve got some unregulated-ass kids, and every moment that I haven’t been sleeping or working, I’ve been trying to give them what amounts to a half-decent summer. Sometimes, when they’re shooting Nerf guns at each other or playing Naruto, I’ll slink away and pull out my phone, just letting the revulsion and horror watch over me. Whenever possible, I’ve had Alfredo on my headphones.
Alfredo was born into this. Rumors about the album started circulating online around the time a Minneapolis cop choked George Floyd to death with his knee. The shock and outrage over the murder of Floyd, innocent civilian and former Screwed Up Click affiliate, was still in its early stages when Freddie Gibbs and the Alchemist confirmed the album’s impending release last Thursday. It was just starting to bloom when the album hit our streaming platforms 12 hours later. For me, Alfredo has been the soundtrack for yet another plunge into disgusted disbelief — a rare respite from the squalid spectacle of watching law enforcement in my country declare open war on anyone who would dare to publicly question its oppressive tactics.
I’ve been writing about Freddie Gibbs for more than a decade. I watched in disbelief as this impossibly tough and charismatic rap virtuoso emerged from the wrecked ruins of a major-label deal, transforming his unreleased leftovers into mixtape fodder, building himself a whole new audience. I watched when Jeezy’s CTE label snapped Gibbs up and let him languish on a shelf. I watched when Gibbs split from Jeezy, declared independence yet again, and found a whole new career as an underground rap over-achiever. I watched as Gibbs discovered just how beautiful his voice could be.
The combination of Gibbs and Madlib was a fascinating one — a bone-hard street rapper in the classic ’90s Midwestern mode, a onetime would-be star, linking up with a producer widely beloved for his ability to turn ancient and obscure samples into psychedelic ear candy. After two albums with Madlib, Gibbs is firmly entrenched in the firmament of critically-acclaimed, internet-beloved rap greats. He’s not making hits, and he seems fully content with that. But if you’re paying attention, he’s a titan. That’s the Gibbs that we get on Alfredo, his new album with the Alchemist.
As a producer, Alchemist, once a dedicated neck-snapper, is now fully in the same zone as Madlib, especially on Alfredo. Alchemist’s beats on the album are warm and blissful and hazy — free-floating fantasias of lazy jazz guitar and slow-motion flute samples. Alchemist hasn’t forsaken the sound of drums, but he’s more concerned with atmosphere, with vibe. That suits Gibbs just fine. Gibbs finds his own rhythms. He becomes the drums. On Alfredo, Gibbs develops complicated and layered flow patterns, letting syllables fall like rain. His voice is rich and sonorous, and you can drift off just on the sound of it, catching the occasional punchline but mostly just listening to the way it hits those beats. For at least the first few listens, that was how I heard the album.
Those first few times, Alfredo felt like a pure rapping exercise, a display of vivid and ferocious skill. At first, it didn’t seem to have as much at stake as Boldy James’ stark and weathered The Price Of Tea In China, another great Alchemist-produced album from 2020. But then the sensation wore off, and certain lines stuck with me. Gibbs can be funny in dense and intricate ways: “Dumb high, Marty McFly, put down the crack/ Bet on myself like I went back to the future with a rap almanac,” “God made me sell crack so I’d have something to rap about/ Lobster lollipops and crustaceans, ho, what you mad about?” He can be easy and conversational: “Alhamdulillah on the nights that I wasn’t having shit/ I say my prayers, but I’m rusty as fuck with Arabic.” He can do straight-up drug-dealer music with nearly unparalleled viciousness and skill: “Panoramic roof off on that coupe, I look like George Jetson, Space Ghost/ Fentanyl, got a gas mask when I make dope.” But he can be something more, too.
Even though his writing and cadence are sophisticated, Gibbs always sounds like he’s at least two blunts in, letting his brain flit from subject to subject. So he’ll switch from remembering getting his dick sucked to reflections on the career transition from drug-dealing to rapping: “Record labels downed me $40,000 on my first advance/ Fucked up on my taxes, IRS kept me on payment plans/ Crime fucking pays, but once you paid, you gotta pay the man.” Some of Gibbs’ turns of phrase are evocative just on their own: “I don’t sell a whip, I let the gang have it/ Got a pocket full of dead slave masters.” And sometimes, he even gets into the moral implications of his past career. At one point on Alfredo, Gibbs even remembers contemplating suicide, something I’ve never heard him rap about before: “Man, my uncle died off a overdose/ And the fucked up part about that is I know I supplied the nigga that sold it/ Put a pistol to my head, I was way too scared, drunk off emotions/ I’m drinking and taking these drugs cause I can’t numb the pain with smoking.”
For obvious reasons, though, the parts of Alfredo that hit the hardest are the parts that talk about police. Whenever he mentions them, Gibbs gets defiant: “We were busting at police before Queen & Slim, that’s on FN/ Let off 50 shots to the squad car and get in the wind/ Told the Gary Police in ’05 that I got more guns than them/ Get the feds if you want a war, and they sent them bitches in.” On “Scottie Beam,” a traffic stop turns into a verbal showdown: “He pulled me over, I asked him, ‘Yo, what’s the problem, sir?/ I swerved to duck the potholes, man, I had no option, sir/ Just let me go cause my license, insurance proper, sir/ I’d hate to be on the run for smoking an officer.'” Lines like that carry a charge that they might not have had when Gibbs recorded them.
The past week hasn’t been anything new. Rappers don’t say “fuck the police” in a vacuum; they say it because they’ve been living with the types of things that we’ve been seeing on our social-media feeds. Alfredo isn’t a sign of the times or an indictment of our psychotic police state. It’s just a really good rap album. It’s a consistently great rapper leveling up, putting his contemporaries to shame, forcing famous guests like Rick Ross and Tyler, The Creator to bring their A-games just so that they can keep up. It’s the type of rap album that’s ultimately more about technique than anything else — the type where someone might fuck around and let off with a line like “I know the Lord watch over babies and fools/ I did the fooly with this tool to put my babies through school.” But in a moment of chaos and disgrace, Alfredo has also been the sonic haven that I’ve needed — a beautiful record that makes room for the ugliness that surrounds it.
1. YG – “FTP”
“Make your rich-ass city look like trash/ To whoever make the rules, we need answers fast.”
2. ZillaKami – “ACAB” (Feat. Nascar Aloe)
“Talk to fucking 12? I stomp his head under my sandal/ Lock me in a cell, leave me for dead, bitch, I’m a vandal/ Police power tripping, turn your ass into examples.”
3. Conway The Machine – “Front Lines”
“I just seen a video on the news I couldn’t believe/ Another racist cop kill a nigga and get to leave/ He screaming, ‘I can’t breathe,’ cop ignoring all his pleas/ Hands in his pocket, leaning on his neck with his knees.”
4. Terrace Martin – “Pig Feet” (Feat. Denzel Curry, Daylyt, Kamasi Washington, & G Perico)
“Foot Locker, liquor stores, undercovers bringing hordes/ 10 years plus four, little kids die at war.”
5. Teejayx6 – “Black Lives Matter”
“Kill my people for no damn reason/ So now we ’bout to come loot your white business/ I was tryna protest, but the police keep asking me questions/ Get the fuck out my business.”