March 27 2014
The term classic has been tossed around a lot since last weeks release of Freddie Gibbs and Madlib's collaborative LP, Piñata. And while this claim should be viewed as premature and is more indicative of the shallow descriptive abilities of the praise-happy pissing contest which we commonly refer to as music journalism, it has prompted a meritable dialogue. But what exactly constitutes a classic record? And more importantly who decides?
As skeptical as I am of critics who quickly drop the “C” word, rewind to 2012 and you'd hear me spouting off about Kendrick Lamar's Good Kid M.A.A.D City being a bonafide classic (minus the bonus tracks). Good Kid was quick to be praised for a few simple reasons: it managed to simultaneously speak for and critique a generation; it employed an album long narrative in both production and lyrics (which is about the equivalent to a four-leaf clover in hip-hop) and like Nas, Jay-Z, and Biggie before him, Kendrick Lamar managed to unveil himself to the general public once he had honed his craft. For a lot of people all of these incredibly rare and difficult feats positioned Kendrick Lamar as representative of the ideal standard of hip-hop; many listeners, particularly the young, had not experienced this before. It was easy to see Good Kid being for the younger generation what Illmatic was for me at 11 years old.
But outside of the rare, cultural phenomenon rap album exists a different type of classic. It is the type of record that mysteriously, even prematurely enters your hands and eviscerates your conception of a genre. And while it manages to succeed in all of the aforementioned ways something like Good Kid does, it is something more personal. I was 13 when I somehow found myself this record, it was a copy of Madlib and MF Doom's Madvillainy. I had no idea of who or what I was listening to, but after that I would never listen to rap the same. And while Piñata is about something far different and less lyrically abstract than Madvillainy, it is going to redefine rap music for a whole generation of listeners in the same way.
Ultimately the synthesis of Gibbs' unapologetic, tell-it-how-it-is gangster rasp and Madlib's alchemy of vinyl fetishism and avant-garde eclecticism creates a wholly original sound (Madlib is so good he even managed to reinvigorate the over-used Freda Payne sample on “High”). The fact that a project between rap's Omar Little and it's reclusive, stoned Merlin actually came into fruition is amazing. While both Gibbs and Madlib deserve credit for this adventurous endeavor, the project says the most about Gibbs' character. Considering his circumstances, which include his recent departure from Young Jeezy's CTE and his recent onslaught of purebred gangster rap, Gibbs took a foreseeable risk by putting his name in conjunction with a producer more likely to favor an obscure movie score over embedding a quote from Al Pacino in Scarface.
Upon listening it becomes clear that Piñata is the product of two immovable forces, unwilling to compromise themselves or sacrifice their artistic integrity. But, somewhat surprisingly, this doesn't facilitate the butting of heads, something about Madlib's organic aesthetic enhances Gibbs' creditability when it comes to rapping about drug transactions and home invasions. Where many of Gibbs' ilk would opt for an abrasive, snare-drum-riddled production to mirror his lyrics, Gibbs smartly challenges himself to rap over beats that, when done correctly (which they are), work to further the ominous atmosphere he strives for.
Well prior to Piñata I've considered Gibbs the best rapper alive and seeing the steps he takes on Piñata squashes any notion that he is going to regress or fizzle. “Deeper” marks some of Gibbs' most poignant and self-critical verses to date but amazingly manages to uphold his impartial and un-fazed gaze into the evil of the world. And while it is clear that Gibbs is one of the most gifted observational anthropologists rap has seen, there are junctions of Piñata that allude to a greater message in Gibbs' oeuvre. Like on “Shittsville” where he elucidates how his identity reflects our society's love of the villain, while subtly pointing to the inherent hypocrisy of our racist culture. Gibbs vividly portrays the dirt from which he grew with an almost journalistic unaffectedness that justifies things as terrible as selling crack to a relative (“Thuggin”) without sounding defensive or concerned with judgement. And it is with this same lack of affectation that Gibbs brutally disembodies Young Jeezy on “Real”, a diss track that will likely be remembered alongside “Ether” and “Who Shot Ya”.
As for Piñata's status as a classic rap album, only time will tell. The album long sonic aesthetic that Madlib masterfully wove together with black exploitation film sound clips and Gibbs' menacing snapshot of life reminiscent of Nas' Illmatic definitely favor the albums descent into cult fandom. But will it be a record that numerous generations gravitate toward decades after it's deluxe vinyl reissue (which will receive a perfect score on Pitchfork)? Will it eventually be endlessly debated and dissected by rap's geriatric one hit wonders and failed comedians on VH1's Best Hip-Hop Albums of All Time (all respect due to Michael Ian Black)? Personally I think it will, but at the end of the day only your own opinion matters.