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Freddie Gibbs / Madlib: Bandana Album Review

On paper, Freddie Gibbs, a straight-shooting street rapper, and Madlib, an excentric tinkerer, has as a mouth-watering combo as a liqueur and pickle juice. But their collaborative 2014 album Piñata succeeded because the two are equally uncompromising: Madlib tailors beats his eclectic ears alone, while Gibbs insists he can rap over anything. Kindred spirits, the pair bonded through mutual gumption.

On follow-up Bandana, the bond deepens. Madlib's beats remain off-kilter, and Gibbs remains a gangster, but there's a looser feel to this record, a spirit of intuition and intimacy. Their overall recording process did not change much: Madlib sent beats and Gibbs rapped over them as-samples, pauses, breaks, and all. This time, however, they made the effort to meet in the studio and reviewed various mixes and edits to calibrate. The result is a keener sense of each other's presence. Moving in lockstep, Gibbs and Madlib pull themselves into one another's worlds, forging a new one in the process.

On Piñata the duo bridged Gibbs' street sense and Madlib's throwback flair by embracing the sounds and attitudes of blaxploitation. Smoky soul drifted out of every crevice, drugs flooded the streets, and middle fingers never came down. The general vibe was defiant, gritty, and nostalgic, fitting the back-to-basics spirit of a current lyricist linking with an inveterate crate-digger. Bandana is palpably more unhinged, less rooted in a particular time or style or mood

The through line is black freedom. Across the record Gibbs mentions various black figures and tragedies, from the Transatlantic slave trade ("Flat Tummy Tea") to Baltimore drug kingpin Melvin Williams ("Education") to basketball star Allen Iverson ("Practice") to the death by police bombing of the mass shooter Micah Johnson ("Soul Right") to Tupac's assault on the Hughes Brothers ("Massage Seats"), weaving a grand, ambiguous tapestry. Gibbs has been talking black power in various forms since his early mixtapes, but here he is less sure about what it looks like, who embodies it, how to secure it. As he takes a fuller view of his life and the fates of his idols, he grows more cautious. "I can not move the same," he insists on "Gat Damn."

He's kept on his toes by Madlib's strikingly robust production, which is maximal compared to his revered lo-fi sound . "Half Manne Half Cocaine" begins with ticking hi-hats and bass kicks topped by twinkle bells, then spanzzes into a torrent of cymbals and sampled shouts-trap by way of EPMD. The scuzy riff on "Flat Tummy Tea" is stretched, distorted, and splashed with atonal effects that evaporate into a breakbeat. Madlib has always been an unsparing producer, but this is one of the few times he's allowed himself to be baroque

Gibbs' rapping is just as fitful. Jerky still agile, he regularly drops in and out of cadence, throttling and braking his streams to accent key images. On "Situations," he mentions surviving and shooting that claimed his cousin, sprinting through the memory like he's felt a sudden jolt of pain. "Cousin took two to the brain / Bullets missed me it's a blessing / I could see the day like it was yesterday I'll never forget it," he says, cramming the last line into one bar. He "Gat Damn," he remembers fasting in an Austrian prison that did not provide Muslim-friendly meals. "Say my prayers, Alhamduillah / No bacon, ham, bacon, ham / And cold salami / That's all they serve us," he sings, evoking the strain of experience by spacing his words. Gibbs often boasts of his versatility, but here his movement is dictated by purpose rather than reflex

A current of self-discovery bubbles beneath all this motion. Madlib emerges as less subdued, more emboldened to challenge his collaborator (and the listener) rather than shroud his ideas in the fog. Seeds, and Madvillains before that, has the Beat Conducta felt like, well, a conductor, actively dictating the path the music takes. You can feel Gibbs' ideas being guided by the dreamy loops on "Crime Pays" and the humid sway of "Cataracts."

The album's few misfires occur when guests misread the room. Continuing his one-man nostalgia show, Anderson .Paak's bloodless crooning on "Giannis" is pure pastiche. "Power, love, and loyalty," he reads from a movie poster. Pusha-T and Killer Mike's appearances on "Palmolive" are stiff compared to Gibbs' constant action. They treat the song's beautiful main loop like a fossil in a museum, admiring it from afar. Black Thought and Yasiin Bey are the only ones who seem to share Gibbs 'hunger here.

Overcoming the constraints on black freedom was always the underlying mission of Madlib's beloved jazz and soul artists, as well as Gibbs' prized black rebels. For Bandana, the couple taps into that heritage and allow themselves to be shaped by its highs and lows, its heroes and villains. Finding themselves within that slipstream of black thought and life, they plot their course on their terms. Bandana is a tradition and transgression: one rapper, one producer, no limitations

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