When they first announced their intentions to team-up nearly a decade ago, the concept of producer Madlib and rapper Freddie Gibbs collaborating seemed unorthodox: the great discoverer of seemingly lost samples working with a hard-hitting MC from Gary, Indiana, with none of the kooky absurdity of an MF Doom to bring any levity to a project, seemed like the type of insane pipe dream for people who still believe Kendrick Lamar and J. Cole will one day release an album together. But as we all know, opposites attract more often than they repel, and so a trio of EPs lead to an eventual full-length album, with 2014’s Piñata. Gibbs casually rapped his ass off, and Madlib threw at him as many random ’70s funk instrumentals as he could muster. In a way, this is the defining characteristic of the relationship between these two old souls, both of whom have never made their names in mainstream markets: make do with what you have and still give ‘em hell while doing it.
Bandana keeps this same forward-moving momentum in place, but with some noticeable variations. For starters, the guest list has been significantly reduced since their last outing, giving Gibbs more of an opportunity to shine on his own merits as an exceptional wordsmith, one so deliriously on-point that he’s often difficult to keep up with; there’s a more pronounced political edge to the majority of the tracks here, too, with “Flat Tummy Tea” railing against global imperialism (“Crackers came to Africa, ravaged, raffled, and rummaged me / America was the name of they fuckin’ company”) and “Palmolive” going after America’s self-congratulatory history (“Fuck the forty acres and the mule”) with some anti-vaxxer views thrown in; and there’s a great emphasis on Madlib’s technical wizardry in terms of song construction, which often employs radical beat switch-ups (found on “Half Manne Half Cocaine” and “Fake Names”), and attempts to dig even deeper into a seemingly endless collection of samples that could make even Kanye West blush — except when Maldib actually samples a recently produced Ye beat, by taking the piano instrumental from Nas’s “Bonjour” and repurposing it on “Education,” a dizzying, four-minute long history lesson of racial injustice, as taught by Gibbs, Mos Def (sorry, Yasiin Bey), and the Root’s Black Thought. That track is maybe the most ambitious song that this duo has attempted, finding a way to cram in the political (“The jail overcrowded, they emptied out the school”), the personal (“It’s quite ironic how all this ice’ll keep the heat on a n***a”), and the conspiratorial (“Bar codes on the wristband, it’s not an oversight”) — without missing a beat. The lived-in reality of each rappers’ struggles comes to the forefront, but Black Thought puts it best, in his closing verse, almost comically laughing through the pain: “And that’s life.”
Published as part of What Would Meek Do? | Issue 10.