Five years after Freddie Gibbs and Madlib’s Piñata brought street rap to another echelon, the duo widely acclaimed for their intoxicating film-grained spectacle brings Bandana as both a companion piece as well as a successor. The latter album pops the top on their specialty of claustrophobic coke rap to present a brighter worldview, even with many more pounds of flesh to offer for the scale. Given Gibbs’ trajectory in particular, the brightness justifies itself: After riding Piñata’s success into international touring — quickly followed by the release of Shadow of a Doubt — sexual abuse allegations landed Gibbs in an Austrian prison in 2016, though he was completely exonerated in a matter of months. The incident deflated his momentum and his creative spirit; he disappeared from public view for almost a year, and Bandana marks his fourth album since resurfacing in March 2017.
If one found Gibbs’ previous works hard to stomach, Bandana’s surely not for the faint of heart, no matter how luscious Madlib’s selections treat the ear. This album’s a victory lap after the winning driver almost spun out seven times before even pulling up to the raceway. On his best day, Gibbs is the sorest winner with the cleanest smirk: He spares no opportunities to gloat his successes, but not without every intricate reminder of what he’s sacrificed to earn them all. The ramifications of his antiheroism remain a matter of optics, but the caliber of his pen isn’t up for discussion: He sprays the most gruesome details at a semiautomatic pace, gracefully shoving the listener through every kitchen, shootout, and foreign ménage he can remember. No detail seems fleeting, especially his failures. Death still lingers. Family members drop dead alongside Gangsta Kane. He even mentions his lady’s ultimatum after he’s caught with another woman. While Gibbs has never been one to spare details, Bandana gives us Gibbs in full, raw frame: villainous, traumatized, and sickened by injustice.
Per the course, Madlib’s instrumentation is a character of its own: Bandana’s samples often envelop the listener by leaving whole chops of the original records to play out, sprawling and emotive to dictate whichever mood Gibbs attempts to match. It’s timeless and timely at once, without compromising either aesthetic choice. “Half Manne Half Cocaine” immediately distills this balance: Madlib indulges modern trap sensibilities for Gibbs’ agility to peek through, before the beat bottoms out into a thunderous rush of dingy guitar. As the songs switch and jolt, nothing feels forced and the continuity remains intact as Bandana flows through what feels like two movements: The first half firmly re-establishes Gibbs’s rugged id via juxtaposing his grim content with a bright sonic optimism, while the latter rings more haunting as Gibbs allows himself to become more exposed to the truths he’s had to face. When the content feels redundant in theme more than execution, the elaborate beauty of Madlib’s efforts often threaten to upstage Gibbs. Thankfully, there’s no element tired or lacking enough for either side of the tandem to overpower the other.
A sparse feature list keeps Gibbs in full command of Bandana’s Olympic rap qualities; it’s clear he’s grown long weary of his exclusion from the dialogue of the best, though he won’t go far out the way to let it show. It shows through most when his fellow veterans appear: the focused combo of Pusha T and Killer Mike prove formidable additions to “Palmolive.” A stone-faced Anderson .Paak graces “Giannis” with a reflective check-in that matches Gibbs from an angle he couldn’t access. It’s a true delight to hear the worldly musings of Yasiin Bey and Black Thought on “Education,” both probing the world’s ills for Gibbs to blaze behind them like he knows he can’t get his song snatched. (And he doesn’t.) The last record, and much of Bandana’s back end, places a new political weight into the MadGibbs universe that not only finds the MC more potent and pointed, but humanizes his contradictory nature even further. Gibbs has long been a man of principle, but he emerges from the other end of Bandana as a weathered warrior who’ll cut you as quickly as the dope, but genuinely seems interested in leaving the past behind. (The anti-vaxxer bars are… odd.)
Given Gibbs’s high baseline for consistency, a record as gorgeous and rewarding as Bandana is unlikely to surprise anyone acquainted with the quality threshold MadGibbs maintains. Both men still beat the pot until they strike gold, and the gold medal energy is palpable. Madlib’s recently articulated a desire to keep this energy for another two decades if Gibbs is willing to make it happen. If hip-hop continues to shed the ageism of its time limits on how long someone can pop, Gibbs fits the profile of a perfect candidate: a 37-year-old who still feels nowhere near his ceiling, thrilling us in ways his peers and predecessors could only dream of approximating.