Rapper Freddie Gibbs delivers lyrical gems in the midst of COVID-19 chaos
His album ‘Alfredo’ adds to one of hip-hop’s great gangsta rap careers
“Brass knuckle lyricism,” music critic Yoh Phillips dubbed it the day of its release.
But when Gibbs answers the phone on a recent Friday evening, there’s a familiar weight to his voice. For many black men and women like Gibbs, that weight is a generational heirloom — being black in a country that adores black culture, but not always the creators of it.
Gibbs should be experiencing a lot of things: touring, making music videos, doing press runs. But Gibbs knows his music lands at a point when history is being made, as a health crisis and Black Lives Matter protests reverberate worldwide.
Alfredo is Gibbs’ highest-charting album to date, peaking at No. 15 in the Billboard 200. At its core, Alfredo is poetically ghetto, with The Alchemist’s production fitting Gibbs’ graphic, methodical flow perfectly.
Before the first question can be asked, Gibbs is intentional with his thoughts. His timeline looks like ours. His TV, too. “Rest in peace to George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery,” he said. “No disrespect to [Floyd’s] family at all, but the video didn’t surprise me. It just made me feel more despondent about the future because they keep doing it.”
Real change feels imminent. But negative interactions with police are part of the cost of doing business in black America. Gibbs recalls a ton of tense interactions with the police over the years. Being pulled over. In chases with 12. Sitting in interrogation rooms for hours on end for crimes, including murder, he never committed.
“I been through it all,” he said before his voice trails off.
To know Gibbs is to understand why Alfredo arriving in the heat of societal upheaval makes sense.
With all due respect to Jesse Powell, Gibbs is the biggest artist not named Jackson to come out of Gary, Indiana. His first tape, Full Metal Jackit, was released in 2004, but it was the late 2000s when things began to turn for him. In 2009, Gibbs released four mixtapes, headlined by the landmark midwestgangstaboxframecadillacmuzik. Months later, he’d be featured on the cover of XXL’s 2010 Freshman Class with Nipsey Hussle, J. Cole, Big Sean, Jay Rock and more.
“I feel like I kinda got left behind [after that cover]. I never came in the game with a huge cosign. A lot of my peers had that,” Gibbs said. “I’m from a city that doesn’t even have a radio station. I took a lot of my lumps early on in this game, and I think that it strengthened me.”
There’s a rule Gibbs lives by: If he has music, he’s putting it out. He’s not the type to start an album a year in advance. It’s why he has more than 20 mixtapes, eight extended plays (EPs) and eight studio and collaborative albums. All of his bodies of work have taken only a few weeks to record. The exception was 2019’s Bandana with Madlib. That was delayed because of a 2015 sexual assault allegation in Austria. He declined plea deals, maintaining his innocence from the beginning. After spending four months in jails in France and Austria, Gibbs was acquitted in September 2016.
“If it wasn’t for jail,” he said, “I would’ve had that s— out in three weeks.”
A life-changing process like that could make anyone question their purpose. For a while, he contemplated leaving rap. The residual impact left him angry — at the world, his job and himself. Time, and therapy, gave way to clarity. Walking away from his purpose would mean walking away from what kept him alive.
If his raps feel like scores to ’hood flicks yet to be brought to the big screen, there’s a reason for that. He’s not that far removed from the streets. Independence is part of who Gibbs is. There’s beauty in that, but it also comes with scars that may not be visible, yet always musically present. Early on, there were more losses than he’d care to admit. A ton of nights wondering if the booth or the block was his true calling. Having parted ways with Interscope Records in 2007, no major labels were pumping money into A&R and marketing. What he was doing to keep his music career afloat didn’t meet the approval of his longtime manager Ben “Lambo” Lambert. These demons stay with him.
“Had powder on my table, the label called for they offer back/ Harry on my line, I ain’t got his bread, I can’t call him back/ Plus I got a show, the promoters ain’t got the dough for that/ These losses set me back, man, I’m literally sellin’ dope to rap/ How can a n—a cope with that?” Gibbs rapped on “Skinny Suge.”
The turning point was his critically acclaimed 2014 Madlib collaborative album, Piñata. “[That’s when music] really just started being very lucrative for me,” he said. From there came 2015’s Shadow of a Doubt, 2017’s You Only Live 2wice, 2018’s Freddie and Fetti with Curren$y and The Alchemist 2019’s Grammy-worthy Bandana with Madlib. All sonically different. All lyrically sharp.
“A lot of mothaf—-s hold on to s— because they scared they can’t make another hit record or better album than what they made before. I never feared that,” he said. “I’m my own competition. I’m rapping against Freddie Gibbs from the last album. And I know that n—a on that last project ain’t better than me right now.”
Which brings Gibbs to Alfredo, a 10-track offering with every bar feeling surgically placed. The album is current. A project isolation conceived and birthed during societal upheaval. There’s a reference to Michael Jordan and the “cocaine circus” the Chicago Bulls great referred to in The Last Dance. And a mention of Tiger King’s psychotic, yet charming antagonist Joe Exotic. Perhaps most prophetic is a Gil Scott-Heron quote. “The thing that’s going to change people [is] something that no one will be able to capture on film,” Scott-Heron said at the end of “God Is Perfect.” “It’ll just be something that you and all of a sudden you realize, ‘I’m on the wrong page … I’ve got to get in sync with everyone else to understand what’s happening in this country.’ ”
Alfredo sounds like it was made in a quarantine: dark, inward-facing, gritty, with tales of drug trafficking and attempts on his life that sound even more apocalyptic when the color of his skin being outside is a health hazard. With Gibbs proclaiming, “God made me sell crack, so I had somethin’ to rap about,” on “Something To Rap About,” or “Lord, take me as I am ‘cause I’m gon’ come as I’m is/ I might die twice if I look down and see my mama in tears,” on “Babies & Fools,” there’s an urgency in his rhymes that are emblematic of the times. A palpable sense of weariness, too.
“Anytime you make an album you gotta be current so people will feel it,” Gibbs said on speakerphone with Alfredo playing in the background. “No disrespect to anybody’s music, but people don’t wanna hear that s—. They don’t wanna hear all that rich n—a, flashing-on-you s—. A n—a naming all these god damn designers … we not at the club right now. … I wanted to dig deep and talk about my life.”
He paused. “Alchemist gave me the perfect tone for what I wanted to express right now.”
Alfredo’s apex is “Skinny Suge.” The title is a homage to the incarcerated Death Row Records impresario Marion “Suge” Knight. But in execution, it is an autobiographical tale of Gibbs’ progression from full-time hustler to prolific gangsta rapper. “Like every night I dream a n—a tryna murder me/ Visions of my loved ones dialing 9-1-1, emergency,” he rapped. ” ‘Cause I decked a n—a and took his work, man, I made it work for me/ If he come back and kill me, I know this s— was business, man/ I never take it personally.”
Tupac Shakur said he saw it around the corner. Pimp C said “One Day” it happens to everyone. Putting those past exploits on record is part trauma and part therapy. The most emotional moment on Alfredo came when he addressed his uncle’s death. Big Time Watts, who died in 2017, had been a constant figure on Gibbs’ music and social media presence. He never hid that his uncle was “far from perfect,” but he was his “father when I needed u to be,” he wrote in an Instagram post at the time.
“Man, my uncle died off an overdose,” Gibbs opened on dealing with survivor’s remorse on “Skinny Suge.” “And the f—ed up part about that is I know I supplied the n—a that sold it.” In his voice, that same weight he had when speaking of Floyd and the protests is back. He’s still grieving his uncle. That’s a process that’ll likely follow Gibbs for the rest of his life.
“It was difficult because I learned a lot of things from him that taught me how to survive. I look at a lot of his downfalls, and ducked a lot of those things because he provided me the example. I miss him every day. I love him.
“Losing him just pushed me harder with my music and to stay away from the streets.”
Alfredo entered the week of June 9 as the fourth-bestselling album in the country. What Alfredo does in 35 minutes solidifies Gibbs as one of rap’s North Stars, both in the moment and historically. Confidence isn’t something Gibbs lacks. He’s 6-for-6 delivering high-quality gangsta rap on his last six projects. For him, the metric is simple: it’s either “Album of the Year” or worst album of the year. And, he’s quick to follow up, “I ain’t letting no trash come out.” Gibbs’ music caters to a specific brand of rap fan. He’s the sonic offspring of names such as Ice Cube, UGK or Ice-T — artists who turned gangsta rap into a medium of societal examination. Ask if he can envision himself ever having a Top 40 pop hit and he laughs. “I’m not doing the popular singing, kinda rapping,” he said. “Ain’t nothing about me Top 40 rap.”
Still, “I think I’m one of the best rappers to ever pick up a mic. If you break it down bar for bar, I think you gotta put me in those conversations. I’m not gonna say I’m the greatest of all time because there’s guys I feel like I still need to work hard to get to their level, like Scarface or Tupac,” he said. “But where I come from, bro, I wasn’t supposed to make it in the rap game. This is like a one in a billion, one in a trillion chance.”
Alfredo is an indubitable victory for Gibbs. But in the midst of celebration comes the reality the nearly 38-year-old father of two can’t escape. Protests and riots are surging throughout the country, including Los Angeles where he currently resides. The world is changing before his eyes, and in some ways staying exactly the same. Now, when Gibbs watches his TV, or logs on to social media, he sees his voice leaving a similar impact. “My execution might be televised,” he rhymed on “Scottie Beam,” interpolating the famous Gil Scott-Heron quote.
“Alfredo is just a real representation of what I feel everyday life is like,” Gibbs said.
Poignant. Graphic. Emotional. If that’s not life these days, what is?