It’s consequentialism at its finest. At the start of Piñata, Freddie Gibbs sends out a reminder that what you end up with justifies how you got there: “The thing was to get it/It really didn’t matter what the means was.” And throughout the album, Gibbs and Madlib prove that to be true. For starters, despite what their debut 2011 collab Thuggin’ taught us, the pairing is still unusual: the hard-headed rapper from Indiana with a blistering flow; the California producer with a penchant for jazz samples and beats that change direction like pinballs in the bonus round. But by the end of Piñata‘s 17 tracks, any doubt about Gibbs’s ability to work his unhinged rhymes around Madlib’s screwy production is smashed to bits.
Gibbs has called Piñata “a gangster Blaxploitation film on wax,” and the nostalgia and tongue-in-cheek self-awareness is high here, precisely because of the Madlib-Gibbs dichotomy. Lines like, “Maybe you’s a stank ho, maybe that’s a bit mean/Maybe you grew up and I’m still livin’ like I’m sixteen” paired with a shaky sample of the Legends’ soul lullaby A Fool For You, (Deeper) and “Fucked you like I married you that night up in the Marriott” over The Manhattans’ ode to monogamy, Wish That You Were Mine, (Shame) prove that Gibbs can work with just about any beat, and Madlib challenges him to do it. And even if Madlib’s old school samples sometimes threaten to monkey-wrench Gibbs’s Southern bounce flow with their conservative R&B smoothness, his rock-hard cadence never falters. On Knicks, Gibbs spits, “Police killed my nigga in 2006/Only thing he losing is his pension/ain’t that ‘bout a bitch,” with stinging intensity.
The album’s many features hit hard too: High, a song that samples Freda Payne’s seductively sweet 1977 cut, I Get High (On Your Memory) brings in Danny Brown for a verse of wide-eyed paranoia. Raekwon shows up on Bomb, almost breaking the beat’s back with his breathless, stream-of-consciousness flow. And though Gibbs raps with a style that doesn’t need a break, he’s content to let the beat ride when it needs to. Bomb is one of those tracks. Madlib shifts from stained-glass synths to a mesh of manically unpredictable xylophone-like scales while Gibbs goes backstage.
There are few missteps. Shitsville is the flattest track on the album, with an initially interesting then half-distracting violin and Gibbs refusing to step back. But its placement right in the middle of Piñata, and behind one of album’s strongest tracks—the terrifying under-the-surface complacency of Thuggin’—gives it an easy pass. Robes is a true test of Gibb’s rapping prowess, because Madlib gives him little more than some minimalist jazz flickers and a chopped Lenny White sample, and Gibbs scuttles around it rather than crashing through it. It’s a subtle instance of Gibbs’s impeccably timed restraint. The beat jerks, Earl Sweatshirt jumps in with his agitated monotone and self-flagellating lyrics (“Checking press releases off the beeper like a pimp”), and the track fades out with Gibbs acapella-singing TLC’s Waterfalls as the beat buzzes like a dying mosquito (or a kazoo) in the background.
Piñata might be long, but it moves fast. The album’s title track, which also closes the LP, features a staggering six guest verses, but it works because the rough rider flow of young rappers like Casey Veggies, Domo Genesis and Mac Miller catapults Gibbs to mentor status (“Bitch, I’ve been thugging since the motherfucking ten speed”). And given the old school hip-hop from which Piñata emerges, and the pair’s knack for restructuring that into tight, unpredictable tracks, the mentor label isn’t that much of a stretch.