When the Madlib-produced Freddie Gibbs debut Piñata came out a couple of months ago, critics began levelling heavy praise at it with the fervour of a birthday kid swinging his bat in a sugar-rage for more confectionery innards to gorge on. I didn’t feel so strongly about it. Gibbs’ flow was nice enough, and there’s a good chance that some lyrical joo-elz were in there, but I didn’t stick with it for one reason or another. Had the feral Danny Brown or Raekwon been the rap protagonist, things would surely have been different.
Save for a couple of tracks, I’d near enough forgotten about the whole album by the time the instrumental version, Piñata Beats, came out. But you only release an instrumental version of an album if you think that the beats merit their own stand-alone existence, and that’s exactly how I’ve approached them on this album; whether you consider that a flawed or valid perspective…
As an instrumental version of an album, as opposed to an instrumental album, the beats don’t necessarily follow any sequence structure making the entire joint amenable to shuffle, which makes it great mp3-player filler for digital consumers. ‘Scarface’ kicks things off with a maelstrom of sirens and synth that filter and descend hauntingly into… a funky-ass drum beat and guitar stabbage combo. This was after all a Freddie Gibbs album, and his gangta-rhymes were invariably matched with gangsta-beats. Madlib being Madlib though, these are OG gangsta-beats; plundering deep into the crates for soul and funk samples seems to have been his modus operandi and, as a result, many beats sound akin to the soundsphere of Blaxploitation cinema. Madlib also being Madlib, not all the beats are new, with some having been sat in archive for ten years. But if sampling has taught us anything its that good shit is timeless.
Madlib’s evident love for this period and its records means that his approach to re-purposing them is nothing short of masterful. The alto and bass string interplay on ‘Deeper’ typifies some of the era’s most mournful ballads, with the staccato-but-still-melody-forming vocal sampling skirting around similar territory. ‘Robes’ and ‘Knicks’ are other great examples whilst on the topic of vocal samples, as Madlib channels some of the soul genre’s signature emotive elements through them in a minimalistic but potent fashion; the latter track in particular being crushingly fragile.
Back to strings, tracks like ‘Thuggin’, ‘Shitsville’ and the titular ‘Piñata’ are all majestic examples but move with a meaner percussive rhythm than the slower jams, preventing the album’s pace from becoming stale. Personal favourites ‘Shame’ and ‘Watts’ come close towards the end, with the former sitting you in a classic Chevrolet on a hot night on some drive-in theatre “Make Out Point” shit, and the latter sitting you in a 1940’s jazz club with its smoky, noir-ish piano and horn flourishes.
Piñata Beats contains some strong Madlib material which, when untethered from Gibbs’ emceeing, succeeds in establishing its own presence. Fans who felt like his recent return to the Konducta series with Rock Konducta played more like a deejay mix than a beat tape will probably be putting this on more this year.