At one point on his third album, Shadow of a Doubt, Freddie Gibbs samples a clip of his June appearance on Snoop Dogg’s beloved GGN series. Specifically, he samples Uncle Snoop’s correct observation that Gibbs, following the likes of Will Scrilla and the Grind Family, CCA, and MCG’z, has given Gary, Indiana hip-hop more of an identity than any artist before him. It’s a telling moment on what is Gibbs’ most mature album yet, one that shows off his penchant for densely written verses, his impressive rapping technique, his knack for melodic hooks à la Bone Thugs and Z-Ro, and his astute ear for both sample-based and synthesized beats. Those abilities combine here to form a strong addition to the 33-year-old’s already considerable legacy.
For Gibbs, it’s been a long, winding journey getting to this point. In 2006, he signed with Interscope, but his deal went out the window when the man who signed him, Joe “3H” Weinberger, left the label. Needless to say, Gibbs survived, building up credibility with his album-quality mixtapes The Miseducation of Freddie Gibbs, midwestgangstaboxframecadillacmuzik, Cold Day in Hell, the Gangsta Grillz installment Baby Face Killa, and, eventually, his actual debut album, 2013’s ESGN. A deal with Jeezy’s CTE World also came and went (and not without beef), but Gibbs never compromised his exacting style of gangster rap. Then he did, or at least he did something markedly different than usual.
Gibbs ventured out to left field with last year’s excellent Piñata, a joint album with legendary producer Madlib. Released 10 years to the month after Madlib’s classic album with MF DOOM, Madvillainy, it became the most critically acclaimed release of Gibbs’ career. It didn’t come easy. Gibbs said that Madlib’s kaleidoscopic, sample-based beats — in contrast to the tighter, harder-hitting sounds he usually prefers — threw him off at first. “It was like putting together a puzzle,” he told Power 105.1’s The Breakfast Club. Suffice to say, this new album’s darker, tougher production fits him like a snug pair of fingerprint-concealing gloves.
Shadow doesn’t have as much humor as Piñata, but that’s fine. As heard on past songs like “Murda on My Mind” and “Rob Me a Nigga”, Gibbs has always been a detail-oriented storyteller of ski mask ruthlessness and DEA evasion. Not even The Roots’ always evocative Black Thought, who’s in peak form on “Extradite”, distinctly out-writes Gibbs here. The reflective opener, “Rearview”, immediately marks this as a personal album, with Gibbs recollecting a past pill dependency: “Pill habit heavy/ Hella bars, I can’t even count.” “Insecurities” has taunts for the conspirators who tried to gun him down in Brooklyn just over a year ago, while “Freddie Gordy” covers his drug-dealing past, that pill habit (again), and the deepened sense of purpose he’s felt since the birth of his daughter in April. His sense of drama and tension is at its most gripping on “Fuckin’ Up the Count”, the creeping lead single that samples dialogue from The Wire. Even without the samples, the song would still be one of the most vivid here, with its images of cash-stuffed couches and Swiss luxury watches.
There are also songs here that temporarily veil Gibbs’ talents, like the ESGN tracks “Lay It Down” and “Have U Seen Her”: trap rap bangers that some longtime Gibbs fans saw as overly trendy. Here, “Mexico” and “Packages” are lurching, bass-heavy drug trade dispatches with huge hooks. Toronto rapper and singer Tory Lanez recaptures the grandeur of his Meek Mill collaboration “Lord Knows” on “Mexico”, while Gibbs’ “Wrapping them packages up!” mantra on “Packages” is delivered like the titular hook on Future’s “Diamonds from Africa”. Even more unexpected are the Auto-Tune one-off “Basketball Wives” and the Gucci Mane and E-40 collab “10 Times”, a minimal slapper that could become the biggest song of Gibbs’ career.
Some might see those songs as industry-influenced compromises coming from a guy who’s never had a bona fide hit single. Or they can be taken as proof of Gibbs’ underrated versatility. They work. “Basketball Wives”, for example, has lodged itself inside my head more than once since I first heard it. Even with all its different sounds, Shadow of a Doubt leaves one clear impression: Freddie Gibbs is a restless artist who continues to find meaning in his Gary story and beyond, knowing that the details can prepare him for whatever comes next.
Essential Tracks: “Fuckin’ Up the Count”, “Extradite”, and “Packages”