The ‘90s New York rap scene ran amuck with cocaine dealers rapping over jazz and soul samples dragged out of thrift stores and onto turntables. This style fell from the mainstream consciousness before that decade ended, but a select few rappers and beatmakers hold true. Two such musicians are California sound-smith Madlib and Indianan MC Freddie Gibbs, and their latest album “Bandana” debuted to critical acclaim.
Madlib and Gibbs are frequent collaborators. Since 2011, the duo released two albums and four EPs, gaining renown as grimy, experimental and classic hip-hop. Their album “Piñata” received high praise from Pitchfork, Anthony Fantano and more publications, so hopes were high for this latest release.
In a way, Gibbs and Madlib have only their previous work to measure against. Their joint modus operandi relies heavily on the old school style of hip-hop. Madlib’s movie samples and grooving drums fit more with Q-Tip of A Tribe Called Quest or Pete Rock than the eerie trap beats of Metro Boomin’. Likewise, Lil Uzi Vert or Travis Scott don’t mesh with Gibbs’ gangsta swagger like a Method Man of the Wu-Tang Clan or a 2Pac would.
Even the guest list on “Bandana” points to that old school flavor. “Palmolive” features Killer Mike and Pusha T, both longtime rappers who now occupy a similar lane of throwback conscious and cocaine hip-hop. Black Thought of the Roots and Yasiin Bey, also known as Mos Def, are acclaimed ‘90s lyricists that appear on “Education.” On “Giannis,” Anderson .Paak fits the retro soul vibe like a glove.
Madlib and Gibbs are a ‘90s gangsta rap act at nearly every level except for actual decade, and by emulating so heavily the revered classics of hip-hop so long after their vogue had passed, the duo must measure themselves against those standards. Does “Bandana” measure up to GZA’s “Liquid Swords” or the Notorious B.I.G.’s “Ready to Die”? First, let’s take a look at Gibbs and Madlib as separate components.
Gibbs’ style is effective above all else. His vocals resemble ‘90s rappers Juvenile and Krayzie Bone of Bone Thugs N Harmony: husky, sassy, fluid and full. The grit of his voice and ease of his speaking make every bar sound like a rapid-fire string of Shakespearean insults. Gibbs sounds like granules of fine sand with the occasional piece of broken seashell. His flows alternate between speedy triplets and coherently rambling off-kilter melodies.
Meanwhile, his lyrics are a full 45 minutes of cocaine dealing. His first line on the album is “Cane season, n****” accompanied by an overdramatic sniffing sound. Drug dealing is not new territory for the rapper, or rap, but Gibbs supplies a level of personality in his flows. He has a casual, offhanded manner and sense of fun that add charm to even his most ruthless bars.
On “Half Manne Half Cocaine,” he references Mr. Snuffleupagus from “Sesame Street,” as well as rapper Ace Hood’s fake watch on “Giannis.” “Bandana” has a similar appeal to the film “Scarface”; both are so over-the-top that they enter a new level of unserious enjoyability, as well as communicating that the album is not an object of emulation or even reality.
A few songs step outside this narrow lane. “Palmolive” contains some minuscule political commentary and antivax rhetoric. Gibbs outlines his infidelity and need for support on “Practice.” Even in the songs about cocaine, Gibbs doesn’t shy away from the dangers and darkness of a life of crime.
However, his non-drug dealing lyrics leave something to be desired. Perhaps antivax lyrics will always taint an album, but the sheer weight of the cocaine bars as well as their ease make most other topics feel out of place. Gibbs has a definite area of expertise, and outside of it, “Bandana” falters. As a whole, Gibbs is a highly entertaining rapper with an expert flow and high charisma.
Madlib’s beats warp the ‘90s boom-bap ethos for their own ends. He incorporates soul, comedy monologues, jazz and Indian cinema samples with hip-hop beats to make left field productions reminiscent of RZA from the Wu-Tang Clan. While boom-bap can become boring with repetitive loops and dusty atmospheres, Madlib has a great set of samples alongside plenty of beat switches.
He always keeps “Bandana” interesting, even going out of his lane with more trap-influenced beats like the first halves of “Half Manne Half Cocaine” and “Flat Tummy Tea.” When compared to the New York producers of the ‘90s, like Havoc of Mobb Deep or DJ Premiere, Madlib goes into stranger territory.
Together, Gibbs and Madlib have a quirky chemistry. Madlib’s sideways take on the grounded world of ‘90s hip-hop gives Gibbs a dark, sophisticated beat set, while Gibbs’ outsized personality livens up Madlibs’ production.
“Bandana” can be easily compared to many of the classic ‘90s gangsta raps, but the more forceful personalities like DMX or 2Pac never had this imaginative of an instrumental backing, and the best-produced artists like A Tribe Called Quest or Nas never arrested the listener’s attention. Gibbs and Madlib, in contrast, amplify each other’s strengths and make “Bandana” a menacing, exaggerated and above all, amazing project.
When a listener compares “Bandana” to ‘90s New York gangsta rap, Gibbs and Madlib perform well above the average. The advantage of 20 years of distance allows both artists to strengthen and expand upon what was good about those boom-bap albums. They take the original ethos of rawness and incorporate more energy and experimentalism.
However, Gibbs and Madlib likely will not appeal to those indisposed toward that old school hip-hop. Madlib has underwhelming moments when he just does a typical boom-bap beat; Gibbs has a limited lyrical scope — casual violence and misogyny crop up throughout and the broken English-speaking robot voice is uncomfortable. They are minor nitpicks overall, but for the audience uninterested in ‘90s gangsta rap, “Bandana” is an unlikely choice.
“Bandana” is an enjoyable project. When at their best, or even a wide margin below their best, Gibbs and Madlib excel as individual components and as a duo. The beats are good, the raps are entertaining and the vibe is lowdown and dirty. The album won’t convert listeners outside of the old school niche, but for the people who just need a jazz sample and some rhymes, “Bandana” is a good ride.