How Freddie Gibbs Became Rap’s Critical Darling

This essay appears as part of the 2020 Uproxx Music Critics Poll.

Gary, Indiana was once a jewel of America’s booming steel industry. Today, it’s among the nation’s most devastating examples of urban decay. This rust belt town was known as “The Magic City” in the roaring ’20s. By the ‘90s, the sustained assault of racial segregation, rising unemployment as the steel business rescinded, and the influx of drugs saw it dubbed a much more sinister and unwanted title, “murder capital of the nation.” As the economy plummeted so did the population: 175,000 in 1970 to 75,000 at the most recent count. Today, an estimated 20 percent of Gary’s buildings lie abandoned.

From these hardened boulevards blossomed Freddie Gibbs, a rapper of passionate verses, gruff gangsterisms, and flawless fundamentals. Gibbs’ history is colored by drug dealing and, for a brief period, pimping. Like a modern day Jesse James, he even robbed freight trains that stopped in the Gary rail yard. To street cred-hunting label executives, Gangster Gibbs must have turned their eyes to dollar signs, but they understood him about as well as The Fresh Prince’s parents understood their offspring. Freddie was dropped from Interscope in 2007 without releasing a record and began a long process of rebuilding his career. Thirteen years later, it’s about time we started talking about him in terms of the all-time greats.

Many components make up a great rap artist. You’ve got to have the flow, of course. A strong pen game is typically important. You need an ear for the right beats, and you’ve got to be able to put it all together over a full-length project. Not all great rappers make great albums. Then there’s Gibbs, on the kind of streak comparable to Run The Jewels, the 1960s Boston Celtics, and The Undertaker at Wrestlemania. The kind of streak where you can walk on water.

Gibbs’s early stuff is alright, but he didn’t exactly arrive fully formed like Nas. His bars were solid if sometimes punctuated with cliché. As he got older, Gibbs evolved into a pure vision of what hip-hop traditionalists love — technically ferocious, lyrically sharp, besotted with old soul loops — without shifting into the “What we’re gonna do right here is go back!” mindset of the retro revivalist. He’s sometimes compared to 2pac, but like Ghostface Killah and Action Bronson, it’s a comparison that falls apart once you peer beyond the outer shell.

When I interviewed Gibbs in 2019, he described himself as “very consistent since 2010.” It’s a fair way to date the beginning of his golden period. Yet hype enkindles slowly when you exist outside the main hip-hop epicenters, especially if you’re not drawn to making cameos for corny artists for the quick check or promise of radio play.

In 2009, Gibbs dropped “G.I. Pride,” a really fun song that depicted Gary as something of a Grand Theft Auto backdrop full of “Sex, drugs, and murder / Dirty politicians, dirty police, dirty burners.” Just one year later, he went much deeper. “National Anthem (F*ck The World)” was the greatest telling of the Gibbs’ origin story and the true beginning of his peak. Over producer L.A. Riot’s wet strings, the rapper takes you back to the embryonic stages of his musical dreams, wondering if he’d ever make it out from “beneath the streets of Gary,” and despairing at the issues that plague the city. Oh, and he raps magnificently — as the solemn instrumental moves up a gear, Gibbs injects the same urgency by effortlessly shifting into a sharp, double-time flow.

Gibbs’s achieved street rap perfection with the 2012’s Baby Face Killa, a lengthy gangster boogie of huster’s hymns, weed anthems, and endless hooks. But it was Bandana, the first of two full-length collaborations with Madlib, that really garnered him the attention of hip-hop day trippers. It was the kind of independent rap album that music critics love: sonically cohesive, narrative-driven, intensely lyrical. Dubbed a “gangster Blaxploitation film on wax,” Gibbs provides big-screen scope and side-street intimacy over Madlib’s grimy samples. On “Deeper,” he charts the relationship between a small-time criminal and an on-again off-again lover who becomes pregnant to another man. It’s a gritty portrayal of break-up troubles and the low-level grind. “Broken” is his depiction of coming from a fractured home. Over a top-tier Madlib beat that sees the Beat Konducta skin a sample of an old Issac Hayes joint that isn’t “Walk On By,” Gibbs talks about the empty promises he made to his grandmother to stay away from crime and reveals the complex feelings he has about a father who served in law enforcement. If the subject matter leaves you cold, Gibbs’ performance is a warming agent.

Gibbs does not stay still. When we spoke, he tried to communicate as respectfully as possible that he essentially had no Gary rap forefathers to look up to. This perhaps lent itself to style-hopping, and even today you’re as likely to find him on a dusty East Coast loop as a thick West Coast bassline. There’s a reason why Freddie was recruited to join California veterans MC Eiht and Kokane on “Welcome To Los Santos,” an official anthem of Grand Theft Auto 5’s Los Angeles stand-in.

So there’s been the more serious-toned noir of Shadow Of A Doubt (0n “Fuckin’ Up The Count,” Gibbs takes the entire universe of The Wire and recasts it in his own image), the confessional writing of You Only Live 2wice, the intense bangers of Freddie, the lean team-up with Curren$y and Alchemist Fetti, and a strong Madlib sequel in Bandana. Gibbs’ instinct for the right producers and ear for beats is worthy of middle era Ghostface.

Alfredo is Gibbs’ latest full-length one of his most impressive in his career for sheer sense of effortlessness. He’s made better records, but none that feel a product of Freddie being so completely in the zone. With Alchemist behind the boards, Gibbs delivers 10 expertly crafted, infinitely listenable rap songs like a man laid back in his study, a glass of hard liquor and cigar sitting on a place end table next to him, spilling loose ruminations on a dark night. Even when Gibbs does veer into triteness (another rap song about Frank Lucas?), it’s never hard on the ear.

“With this project, I laid down the music, but the beats get out of the way so he can do what he does,” Alchemist said about Gibbs. “I’m proud of the beats, but I know that he showed off.” Freddie was rewarded with the highest-charting album of his career.

The calm sounds of “Something To Rap About” invites cool-headed introspection. The title suggests the ease of which the writing is coming to Gibbs as he unleashes a cool verse that veers from sexual liaisons in Las Vegas to his hope he’ll live to old age. Great artists at the peak of their powers are capable of getting into these grooves. When they lose it, it’s almost impossible to rediscover.

In the aftermath of Alfredo, Gibbs inked a contract with Warner, giving him another crack at a major label. It’s tempting to call it the squaring of the circle, but that would suggest the deal is an endpoint in itself, rather than a mile-marker along Gibbs’ journey, and there’s no guarantee it will work out any better for him than his ill-fated stint on Interscope. After a decade on fire, the challenge is to keep beating expectations.