This article originally ran in 2014; we’re dusting it off for Freddie Gibbs’ birthday on June 14th.
In elementary school, Freddie Gibbs wore his clothes backwards to be like Kriss Kross, the Atlanta duo that reversed their jeans and Knicks jerseys on the way to adolescent rap stardom. This is easily the corniest rap-related decision Gibbs has ever made.
Hailing from Gary, Indiana, he debuted with his pair of Full Metal Jackit mixtapes in 2004. Within a couple years, he’d draw attention from the scouts at Interscope, then the home of Eminem, Gwen Stefani, Robin Thicke, Lloyd Banks, and others. He’d soon find himself stranded without a deal, and his mixtapes from 2009, The Miseducation of Freddie Gibbs and, mere months later, Midwestgangstaboxframecadillacmuzik, became triumphs of resilience due to the circumstances. Everything since then, from his signing and eventual fallout with Jeezy’s CTE World to Piñata, his collaboration album with California vinyl addict Madlib, might as well be extra credit.
Not that Gibbs was ever one to throw in the towel, anyway. Living in Gary, a city of 14 to 16 percent unemployment, is a hard-knock existence – 2013’s ESGN, which prominently featured Gary natives yet to hit it big elsewhere, stood for “Evil Seeds Grow Naturally,” Michael Jackson and the whole fam are from Gary, but Gibbs’ most lasting musical loves would turn out to be 2Pac and Scarface. He joined the army after high school and was eventually discharged for smoking weed, but he’d carry the disciplinary tools he learned in the service over to the recording booth.
One way to keep it real is to keep it evocative. Thankfully, Gibbs writes his lyrics with their eventual videos already in mind, dotting seen-it-all narratives with the details of everything from the makeshift bed/sock drawer of his infancy to the city bus rides on which he had formative sexual encounters. Up-and-comers like Deniro Farrar and Lil Bibby are penning similar stuff, and they’re great at it, but both will have to wait years before they’ve built a portfolio as deep as Gibbs’. Here are 10 of our favorite songs.
— Michael Madden
10. “The Coldest”
Str8 Killa EP (2010)
Gibbs has a gift for finding hook-singers you’ve never heard of and bringing out their very best, and “The Coldest” is just one example — B.J. the Chicago Kid would eventually sign to Motown and become a much-requested collaborator for rappers ranging from Chance the Rapper to Jay Rock. “N****s still don’t get it,” Gibbs intros as Kno’s chandelier-like beat touches down, and maybe they never will. The point is that he’s too focused, and too cold-hearted, to give it much thought. — M.M.
Certain things never bring joyful vibes. For example, talk about Gibbs starting off a track by singing over a Young Chop synth composition that recalls the Scarface soundtrack. Talk about ominous. It’s possible there isn’t a Gibbs delivery that doesn’t make urban nihilism sound fascinating: “When you fucking with some n****s that don’t give a fuck about it life sentence this is how it goes down.” Take note: It’s only thrilling from the bird’s eye view. — Brian Josephs
08. “Kush Cloud”
Baby Face Killa (2012)
The psychedelia of “Kush Cloud” is the type that forces your reaction, whether it’s through the dark voodoo the beat emanates or its drug-induced trance. The track wouldn’t have been nearly as effective if the song’s three stars didn’t formulate a different sense of intensity with each verse. Gibbs may be high as a kite, but he’s forever sharp and about that business (“Traffic the powder, how you want that whip?”). Krayzie Bone references his 2007 collapsed lung and sounds invincible throughout, while SpaceGhostPurrp is hauntingly omnipresent. It makes for a multi-dimensional weed song that won’t fuck up your high. — B.J.
07. “Boxframe Cadillac”
Later reworked for Baby Face Killa with help from syrupy-voiced Houston lifer Z-Ro, “Boxframe Cadillac” zooms in on the finer points of a commute with Gibbs, from the exit signs to the blunts that pile up until the vehicle looks like a valley of ashes. The beat is a heavy, throttling thing emblazoned with twitches of guitar and cannonballing piano. All told, the trip might sound highly susceptible to police sirens, but you’ll still be offering Gibbs gas money for a joyride. — M.M.
06. “What It B Like”
The Miseducation of Freddie Gibbs (2009)
Gibbs is known for recording songs that sound a little late to the party. “What It B Like” matches the description, but it also sounds ageless, like it could’ve earned airplay next to Big L in the ’90s or Game in the mid ‘00s. “Two eleven, 1-8-7, semiautomatic weapon/ Make a n**** get to steppin’, I don’t care what set he’s reppin’,” Gibbs raps during the second verse, referencing the police shorthand for armed robbery and murder. To those who still hope to test him: good luck. — M.M.
Baby Face Killa (2012)
Freddie Gibbs could’ve been a Billboard assaulting artist if he wanted to. It’s unfair it’s landed on an “underground mixtape,” because “BFK” has by far one of the most galvanizing hooks and peaks of the decade. But with the world-conquering presence comes an obligation to his the grounds that molded his confidence. Doused in street philosophy, the Baby Face Killa opener is the most succinct showing of Gibbs’ versatility as he moves from breathy chants to machine gun fire crescendos. You’ll nod your heads. You’ll blast this with the windows down. But you won’t forget Gibbs is never too far up the mountain to forget dark realities: “G.I. n****s stay bout it/ Take a n**** life don’t doubt it.” — B.J.
04. “Murda on My Mind”
“Murda on My Mind” turns an average morning in Gary into the paranoid first couple chapters of Crime and Punishment, what with Gibbs funneling his city’s angers, all working painfully upon the young man’s already overwrought nerves, into an unforgiving, cocoon-like beat from Speakerbomb. Gary’s unemployment rate is mentioned, and the way Gibbs says it, it might as well be 60, not 16, percent. — M.M.
There’s sorrow within the nostalgia of Madlib’s high-octave, high-octane guitar. It speaks to a past that keeps repeating itself; a systemic nostalgia that’s forever cyclical. What makes “Thuggin’” thrilling is how Gibbs doesn’t position himself as the ambassador, but rather the reactionary child of the streets. It’s told from a clear-eyed worldview, whether it’s in regards to the frailty of politics (“Why the Fed worried ’bout me clocking on this corner/ When there’s politicians out here getting popped in Arizona”), the cheap wins within the ghetto (“Swiftly ’bout to stick a sweet dick in your sweetheart/ Then get some groceries off my geeker EBT card”), and the environment he’s forced to deal with (“Can’t be legit when every n**** in your click sold drugs”).
There’s a focus in Gibbs’ performance that assures that even if he’s of his environment, he’s no victim. There’s no what-ifs about being born with better cards, either. “And it feels so good, and it feels so right,” Gibbs says. Life goes on. — B.J.
02. “Rob Me a N****”
Cold Day in Hell (2011)
You see that guy right there? This motherfucker? He has the goddamn audacity to be fly. “Rob Me a N****” is Gibbs at both his catchiest and tragic, as the city’s shortcomings aren’t as condemning as the vices and deadly sins. He’s seems particularly urgent and villainous here as basic mores crumble because “His jewelry, his whip game, the wheels too fly.” There’s a Alex DeLarge-esque sensibility as he wonders what to do with his victim as well that makes his verse particularly chilling and engrossing.
“I’mma be up in his crib waiting,” he taunts. “What you know about kidnapping?” he asks in another point. Gibbs is not particularly determined to rob and potentially murder somebody to get what he wants, but — in the same way you’d think about buying a much-needed sweater onsale — he just might. — B.J.
01. “National Anthem (Fuck the World)”
Str8 Killa EP (2010)
Career-defining songs like “National Anthem (Fuck the World)” play out like each line was saved up from earlier sessions to answer questions like “Where am I from?” and “Why am I here?” “I don’t think another dude could do what I do,” Gibbs darts midway through his second verse, and he proceeds to brag about his self-made reputation and ten-toes-in devotion to his craft. L.A. Riot’s beat soars with strings, whistles, and clattering snares that add velocity to an already undeniable hook. The only thing left to do is flex your middle fingers. — M.M.