Freddie Gibbs is gone. A quick trip to the store has turned into an almost hourlong absence. Nobody's worried about his well-being: The gangsta rapper from Gary, Ind., ostensibly could survive a thermonuclear holocaust. But that doesn't mean there's not trouble.
It's October 2012, and tonight is an early recording session for his latest project — already a hotly sought-after item among rap-blog commenters. The work finally saw release on March 18 under the name Piñata, on producer Madlib's Madlib Invazion imprint, and somehow marks critically beloved, underground MC Gibbs' first commercial release following a five-year, online-only blitzkrieg, which vaulted him into contention for best gangsta rapper of his generation.
Tonight, a soul loop supplied by Madlib whorls from the speakers of Gibbs' downtown L.A. home studio. The walls are decorated with framed images of Indianapolis Colts football stars, mobsters, soul greats, civil rights icons and the occasional half-nude girl.
Blunts circumnavigate the room. Earl Sweatshirt and Domo Genesis of Odd Future write lyrics on their iPhones, occasionally pausing to consider how cool it is that they're about to rap over a beat from Madlib, the enigmatic Sun Ra of rap. A pitbull named Smokey Gibbs wanders around, half-stoned with a spiked collar, menacing yet surprisingly friendly.
You hear Gibbs before he enters: "I'M SELLING DOPE ON MY iPHONE." He's got a broad smile, is carrying a brown paper bag, and is wearing a "Just Sell It" T-shirt with the same script and swooshes as the Nike logo. If you're high enough, he looks like 2Pac's Rust Belt half-brother. To accentuate the resemblance, the 31-year-old stuffs weed in a Backwoods blunt and explains the cause of his delay.
"This pig pulls me over, walks up to my car, and asks, 'You need me to write it?' " Gibbs pitch-shifts his voice into an agro-constipated, cop-with-a-mustache whine. He mimics the cop brandishing his rectangular book of tickets.
"You want to make a flash card?"
"No, do you want a ticket is what I'm trying to say."
"Hell no, who wants a ticket?"
Perplexed by the obviousness of the answer and possibly intimidated, the cop lets him go with a warning. It's unclear what he was stopped for in the first place — other than the fact that if you saw Freddie Gibbs, you'd assume he was up to no good. In fact, he'd be the first person to tell you that.
He's the villain that you root for: cold-blooded with no remorse, yet honorable in the omniscient eyes of the G-Code.
"I don't know how that cop didn't notice this in my lap," Gibbs says, removing two bottles from the bag. One is a pineapple Fanta, the other is a jug of cough syrup with codeine.
Then they go to work. Of course, there are more blunts and a liquor delivery order. Tequila. Vodka. Veuve Clicquot. Raps are written, but it's partly an opportunity for him and the Odd Future narcotic wing to get to know each other.
The initial tension is broken when Gibbs grips Earl's shoulders tightly.
"I'm from the projects of East side Gary, Indiana, and I never thought I'd work with y'all. You're weird as fuck, but I fuck with you," he tells Earl, still 18 at this point, not long out of a Samoan reform school, smiling like he's been bestowed with a gold-plated 'hood pass. "You guys don't try to sound like anybody else and don't give a fuck."
As for Gibbs, he's the rare rap athlete capable of spitting bars like spinning basketballs on a Globetrotter's fingers, but with the body-bag menace of a classic gangsta rapper.
If his fan base remains subterranean, that's partially due to his allergy toward artistic compromise and inability to stomach industry politics for long stretches. In 2006, he signed to Interscope before being dropped two years later when the gangsta-rap bear market burst. The rejection served as the trigger for his rise, which began with 2009's The Miseducation of Freddie Gibbs. Its equally lauded follow-up, Midwestgangstacadillacboxframemuzik, sparked raves in The New Yorker and a Weekly cover.
More recently, Gibbs briefly joined Young Jeezy's label CTE (Corporate Thug Entertainment). When he announced his departure last spring, it was with bridge-burning vitriol, which continues on Piñata's "Real"; he starts out calling Jeezy "a wanna-be Jay-Z" and a "puppet" and only gets crueler, tossing darts at Jeezy's cowardice in beefs with Rick Ross and Gucci Mane.
"I never took a dime from Jeezy. I just wanted him to occasionally do a video, a song or two, pop up at a show — little things to move it forward," Gibbs says. "But as soon as I felt like my efforts weren't being reciprocated, I was out. He once tried to tell me I wasn't turning up enough. I was like, nigga, what the fuck are you talking about?"
Before affiliating with CTE, Gibbs had begun work with Madlib under the moniker MadGibbs. It's his most mercilessly impressive execution — a slab of rigor mortis gangsta rap seamlessly molded to a psychedelic soul soundtrack.
"I'm usually bored with both gangsta rappers and underground ones, too," Madlib says. "The difference is that [Gibbs] is believable. He talks a lot of shit, backs it up in real life, and just raps better than every other gangsta rapper. He's got a bit of the old school and the new school."
Their union revolves around an opposites-attract symbiosis: Madlib, the silent and unseen, chops old jazz-fusion, funk and soul loops into beats as bright as a baked Alaska. Gibbs is the battering ram, spinning tight webs of crack slinging, home invasion and crushing poverty. Somehow the vision is loose and weird enough to include drunken studio ad-libs and fake R&B rants.
Some of these outtakes occur past midnight on this October night back in 2012. The session eventually yields a song called "Robes." The title comes from Earl Sweatshirt, who envisions the beat being as plush and soft as white robes.
"This shit makes me feel comfy," he says. "I want to shoot a video with me wearing a robe over my clothes and stepping into a Jacuzzi."
As the liquor and lean seep in, Gibbs starts telling industry stories profane enough to warrant inclusion in Miles Davis' autobiography. Gibbs would rather be feared than loved, and that's understandable — thus far, the former has led directly to the latter.
Domo Genesis and Earl Sweatshirt record their verses in one take; what you hear on Piñata is what they laced that night. By the time it's Gibbs' turn, it's past 2 a.m. and he's drunk. Not casually inebriated but slurring wasted and astronomically high. Anyone else would be barely able to stand, but Gibbs addresses the room, "I'm about to invent a whole new rap style."
Everyone nods, because Gibbs isn't the type of person you argue with. He wrote his verse in maybe 20 minutes, a third of the time it took everyone else.
Climbing into the makeshift, homemade plywood booth, Gibbs unleashes without a pause. It's venomous but has swing. There are the usual uppercuts at A&Rs, girls and other rappers, but toward the end he starts singing, gracefully changing speed, flow, tone and inflection on a bar-to-bar basis. He's rapping like a saxophone solo. A clinic.
Earl Sweatshirt's jaw drops and he jumps up on the couch, as excited as Tom Cruise on Oprah.
As soon as he stops rapping and singing, Gibbs leaps out of the booth with uncaged quickness. He darts out of the room, and he disappears again.