In a modern day hip hop climate where a singing, former child star is one of the game’s premier pop stars, one of its enduring icons holds a higher priority to announcing his ties with corporate America than creating music and it’s most famous provocateur flaunts his permanent ties to a tabloid Hollywood family and European fashion houses, hip hop’s grit has long been scrubbed into a shiny, platinum sheen.
So, since hip hop’s collective 9mm now officially goes “pop”, where does that leave someone who does that leave those who want their rap served with that gangsta touch?
Enter Freddie Gibbs.
A native of Gary, IN (a city famous for being both the home of Jackson family and one of the most deadly cities in the nation) with a rollicking, blunted rasp of a voice and often tongue-tied or sing-song-y flow and a remorseless nihilistic viewpoint, Gibbs—a major label refugee after brief stints on both Interscope and Young Jeezy’s Corporate Thugs Entertainment imprint—is an iconoclast in today’s rap game. He’s a grimy street traditionalist in an industry that currently rewards those who move as far away from the street aesthetic as far as they can.
The 75-minute ESGN, Gibbs’ fourteenth release but first officially retail long-player, provides a cohesive picture of Gibbs’ musical pallete.
The production—mostly handled by Gibbs’ group of in-house producers– on ESGN is fairly varied. Cold, synthetic trap beats and warm, soulful grooves both colors Gibbs’ gangsta tales. While the steely synths and skittering 808s that dominate the album’s first half make for a perfect match for the gray subject matter, it’s trumped by the more melodic, smooth soul-orientated vibe that dominates its final third (executed best on “Dope in My Styrofoam”—with its lush sample of Tyrone Davis’ oft-sampled “In The Mood” and single-worthy “9mm”).
While Gibbs is unapologetically thuggish and headstrong in his mission to modernize the classic gangsta sound, he’s not exactly one-dimensional. The sense of reflection and near-regret displayed on the atmospheric “I Seen a Man Die” and devotion to carrying the torch for his troubled hometown provides a necessary balance to the defiantly nihilism that frames most of the album.
Although at 19 tracks and 75 minutes, it runs a tad longer than it has to, ESGN, to paraphrase George Clinton, is a gangsta ham hock in mainstream hip hop’s glittery (and increasingly) soggy corn flakes.