After the critical and commercial success of Piñata, Freddie Gibbs and Madlib cemented themselves as one of the best rapper/producer duos of the decade. The former’s stark lyricism intertwined perfectly with Madlib’s old school production style. Both represented an invigorating sense of tradition; just two guys chopping up beats and writing rhymes with substance.
Their time-honored formula allowed for a second album together in 2019. Bandana presents the hard-hitting duo as fully-realized-finally understanding what each is capable of together. Madlib’s off-kiltered approach to beat-making could steer some listeners the wrong way if not for Gibbs’ thoughtful rhyme schemes. The Indiana rapper grapples with his own success (“Freestyle Shit”), while wondering what it means to be a black man living in this split country (“Flat Tummy Tea”).
In between all of this introspection, Gibbs makes sure to drop some knowledge on the modern music industry; dutifully discussing the plight of a young rapper, as well as the obstacles that come with it (‘That 360 mean a percentage of every income stream/That record ain’t doing no numbers,” he raps on “Giannis”). Gibbs sounds like a seasoned artist who’s finally figured out the system.
Even his street knowledge seems fully focused. The Pusha T and Killer Mike feature on “Palmolive” is a major highlight on Bandana. The three artists trade bars about our country’s hectic state, taking shots at the past regime (Ronald Reagan) and the present (“We got a reality star in the God Damn office”) in the process. Pusha’s verse is a tad more reflective-painting a picture of a time when change seemed to be on the horizon (“It was snowfall and Reagan gave me the visual/Obama opened up his doors knowing I was a criminal”).
Amidst all of these fire verses lies the chaos shown within Madlib’s unique style of curating instrumentals. His beats are simple in mixing; dense in emotion. He does a lot with a little. A simple flute in the background of “Fake Names” adds character to the overall track. Same with the recurring trumpet on “Freestyle Shit.” The production tells just as much of a story as Gibbs’ poignant rhymes. Madlib fully embraces the heyday of rap, where lo-fi production and low budget albums gave way for organic music. The grainy textures on the majority of these tracks ties the street narrative together entirely. It sounds like a 90s rap album, just with modern chronicles.
Madlib does leave room for versatility. On “Half Manne Half Cocaine,” the Beat Konducta dips his toes into trap influences, with chaotic hi-hats, menacing keys, and industrial synths entering the forefront. It’s the perfect platform for Gibbs’ aggressive approach (and for his need to rap about coke, which he does a lot on this album).
When Gibbs tries to reach out of his element, the album starts to falter a bit. His singing on “Gat Damn” could use a lot of tweaking. It’s one of the few times the music’s aesthetic sounds outdated. The chorus is just a cheesy take on late 90s R&B. “Practice” features potent storytelling-just without an interesting story. Gibbs raps about drugs as if it were a girl; something that’s been done countless times before. Madlib’s production on the track relies a little too much on the sample as well.
It’s honestly one of the few moments that seem out of place across an incredibly layered album. Both artists present some of their best work to date. The duo’s hardest hitting song (“Flat Tummy Tea”) is an amalgamation of their strengths. Gibbs with the memorable lyrics (“Gold body, my jeweler, he black mummy me/”I be all in these bitches stomach like flat tummy tea/Crackers came to Africa, ravaged, raffled, and rummaged me”), Madlib with the anarchic production. That song and album as a whole represents our world in a nutshell-lawless, problematic and demonstrative. Through all of that, both artists are able to make beautiful music, and fully understand their obvious strengths.