Happy Valentine's Day! I hope you share today's post with your significant other, as there is nothing more romantic than violently depressing hip hop. I bet there will be a large number of marriage proposals set to the tune of "National Anthem (Fuck The World)" today.
Freddie Gibbs hails from Gary, Indiana, home of the Jackson family and the man who invented the intermittent windshield wiper (at least, that's what the Greg Kinnear flick Flash of Genius tells me). His name has popped up on hip hop blogs for the better part of the last decade, but Str8 Killa is the man's first official release (read: available in stores), after spending years signed to Interscope Records without ever seeing any movement.
It has been noted that Gibbs shares a similar style with deceased rap superstar 2Pac, mainly because his gangsta rap posturing has a more poetic twist than the norm. Like the guy who played Bishop in Juice, Freddie also has an incredible work ethic, releasing numerous mixtapes and free songs to the Interweb while biding his time at the major label, keeping his name alive while Interscope continuously failed him. Str8 Killa was released by Decon Records in 2010, and its eight tracks were culled from a mixtape he unleashed earlier that same year, Str8 Killa No Filla.
Fredward Gibbs has become a blog superstar by consistently putting in the work and impressing the folks who matter: the listeners. Unsurprisingly, I have spent the entire tenure of my site essentially ignoring the man. Not on purpose, of course, but there are far too many artists to keep track of these days, and you have to pick and choose your battles. Numerous requests sent my way have finally led me to Str8 Killa, though, so let's see what's what.
1. STR8 KILLA NO FILLA (FEAT. BIG KILL)
The Block Beattaz instrumental doesn't kick off Str8 Killa in a positive manner: it sounds like one of those terrible T.I. tracks that he recorded before going to prison (either the first or second time, take your pick). And I don't really see any sort of resemblance to 2Pac's voice in Freddie Gibbs. However, he does attack the beat like a starving cheetah, occasionally switching his flow to that of a speed-rap that avoids sounding corny. Gibbs handles the first and third verses admirably, forcing the beat to become a good match for him, instead of the other way around: it's a testament to his abilities that I really wanted to fast forward through Big Kill's horrible middle verse just to hear more from our host.
2. REP 2 THA FULLEST (FEAT. JAY ROCK)
Oh wait, there's the 2Pac influence. I'm not saying that Freddie ripped off one of the most polarizing hip hop artists of our time, though: it's just obvious that Poetic Justice's Tupac Shakur was an inspiration. The beat, provided by DJ Burn One and B-Flat Trax, is a comfortable fit with the previous track, which at least helps Str8 Killa maintain a consistent tone. Gibbs and his invited guest Jay Rock sound too similar for me to derive my full entertainment dollar from this track, and the hook was relatively generic, but I wouldn't change the channel if this song were playing on the radio.
3. NATIONAL ANTHEM (FUCK THE WORLD)
Our host's increasingly pessimistic worldview invades what just might become his signature song, as he fills two verses with his reasoning and leaves the audience with some guidance as to how to handle the fallout when everything falls apart and all of your friends bail on you. Freddie's bars sound impressive (before he elects to speed-rap during the first verse, his flow even adopts an MC Eiht-like cadence) over this dark L.A. Riot Music concoction: only the chorus, included solely to lead up the the titular phrase in the parentheses above, rings hollow, as it is truly unnecessary. Otherwise, I can see why other bloggers love this song so fucking much.
4. THE COLDEST (FEAT. B.J. THE CHICAGO KID)
Risks leaving the listener cold, if not alienating them altogether. Frederick Gibbs takes a gamble and contrasts his dark themes (as he considers himself “The Coldest” of them all, you see) with a fairly poppy instrumental (which is a weird criticism for me to make, considering Kno (from the CunninLynguists) produced this shit) and an R&B hook (provided by B.J. The Chicago Kid) that tries to undercut what our host is talking about, but the risk doesn't pay off: this song sounds fucking awful. Some artists are capable of marrying the two distinct styles (a few of them are even able to do this without winking at the audience), but Freddie isn't yet one of them. This shit couldn't end quickly enough for me.
5. PERSONAL OG
Frederick downshifts on this track, switching from a shitty bid for radio airplay to “an anthem for the smokers”, which the Block Beattaz low-key beat adheres to nicely. Our host turns in Gary, Indiana's version of a UGK song (Bun B and the late Pimp C are an obvious influence, not just on this effort, but on Gibbs himself) and does a fine job with it, delivering two verses that come across as a before-and-after exercise in smoking that kush. (He even misses a job interview because he was too high to pay attention to the time.) “Personal OG” is easily the best track I've heard on Str8 Killa thus far: it's rare for someone who is essentially a new artist (relatively speaking) to tackle this subject matter so well right out the gate.
6. LIVE BY THE GAME
Let's face it: in our chosen genre, there are only so many topics an artist can cover before his or her thoughts turn back to “the game”, or their lives on the street, before the record contract. (Unless you were born into a different environment or class of wealth, of course: I highly doubt MC Paul Barman will explore this particular trope anytime soon.) As such, nearly every rap song released these days that threatens to expose this hard life sounds rather generic by design, because there's only so much that you can say without repeating either yourself or the next guy. Frederick does his best to give the listener access to another perspective, but this song grows tired by the very first chorus, and it never looks back.
7. ROCK BOTTOM (FEAT. BUN B)
Freddie's dissertation on depression, and what he partakes in to temporarily alleviate the symptoms, is a surprising mini-masterpiece tacked on near the end of the project. Not only does he actually stick to the theme (you would think that would be a no-brainer, but in our chosen genre, you would be wrong), he articulates the situation with such clarity that you just want to reach out and hug him, as there isn't much worse that someone who knows exactly what the problem is but is powerless to do anything about it. Bun B steps in to provide another set of eyes, but Gibbs is the true star on here. A strange thought ran through my mind while this song was playing: you know who would be a good addition to a possible remix? Eminem. I'm not kidding. On a good day, Marshall Mathers could tackle a topic such as depression in a way that resonates with the audience, and I'm not just saying this because Em already had a song called “Rock Bottom” on The Slim Shady LP. It could be the crossover attempt Freddie Gibbs isn't necessarily looking for.
8. OIL MONEY (FEAT. CHUCK INGLISH, CHIP THA RIPPER, BUN B, & DAN AUERBACH)
Gibby saves his massive collaboration for the very end of Str8 Killa, teaming up with Chuck Inglish of The Cool Kids (whose performance is decent enough for me to reconsider my imaginary boycott of their product), KiD CuDi's frequent collaborator Chip The Ripper, Bun B (again), and Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys, thrown in to add even more indie cred to a track that doesn't really need any extra. His warbling vocals match the haunting Blended Babies (now that's a name, I suppose) instrumental note for note, though, and as a result, “Oil Money” is a creepy (and yet entertaining) listening experience that has fuck-all to do with what its title would suggest. Reception to this track has been so good that Frederick has apparently teamed up with Inglish and Bun B to form a rap supergroup: it's up to the universe to decide whether or not they will ever release a proper album together, but I'm hoping at least for one more song. This was a pretty interesting way to end the album.
THE LAST WORD: Perhaps empowered by his years of experience recording songs and albums that never saw any official release, Freddie Gibbs comes across as a seasoned veteran on his debut EP, Str8 Killa. The project never moves beyond the generic subject matter that makes most rap albums hard to digest (save for one song, “Rock Bottom”, which looks at depression, a topic most artists never bother with themselves because the act that they're putting on requires them to appear, at the very least, pleased with themselves at all times), but for the most part, Gibbs has the talent to make you care. A handful of missteps mar this project, but not enough to deduct value from the overall whole. Freddie Gibbs may be seen as the second coming of 2Pac, what with his flow and focus on his environment as both a good and a bad place to share life experiences, but that comparison does the man a great disservice, as Gibbs is nowhere near as polarizing as Tupac Shakur ever was. As long as he focuses on choosing the best instrumentals, and maybe does away with most of his hooks, Freddie Gibbs will have a successful continued career in our chosen genre. Str8 Killa isn't perfect, but it shows promise, with its best tracks (“Personal OG”, “Oil Money”, the aforementioned “Rock Bottom”) ranking among the best 2010 had to offer. Not bad at all.