clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

A Portrait of Freddie Gibbs Atop the Mountain

The Gary, Indiana, native has survived the drug game, a foreign arrest and trial, and years of major label purgatory to become one of the greatest rappers of his—or any—generation. This Sunday, he’s up for a Grammy, and life is looking pretty good.

Rob Dobi

Behold Mount Kane. As it exists in the Olympian imagination, the Los Angeles abode of Freddie Gibbs has faucets that flow with Hennessy and a freezer packed with the purest white powder north of Panama. An English butler proffers a silver tray full of blunts, filled with Freddie Kane’s strain of indica. Harem girls in mink lounge on divans, devouring chocolate shrooms. Wearing a psychedelic Versace smoking robe, Gibbs, nominated for this year’s Grammy Award for Best Rap Album, struts around the palace like a cross between a Han emperor and Hugh Hefner. And the view … well, it’s one of those views you procure only through inheritance, running a criminal syndicate, or being one of the best rappers alive.

Maybe the decadence is just a weekend thing. On a Wednesday afternoon in the west San Fernando Valley, Freddie Soprano’s domestic life isn’t entirely dissimilar from Tony’s. Gangsta Gibbs is very politely handling business with the construction workers redoing his clifftop aerie in the hills, overlooking the smoggy tureen of the 818. The exquisite designer threads are swapped for a blood red hoodie and black shorts. The house is sparsely but warmly decorated, adorned with personal memorabilia: a pair of shoes decorated with the Gibbs “G”; “We Love Uncle Fred” cards from his nephews and nieces; an animated triptych of Gibbs, Curren$y, and Alchemist; designer skateboards; and a framed mural of Gibbs in an Adidas tracksuit. The chief rap star touch is a fleet of cars in the garage that includes a ’72 Impala and a brand new Corvette.

In the next room, his young son Freddie Jr. (whom he endearingly calls “Rabbit”), zooms around in a toy sports car, diligently watched by a babysitter. The house sits slightly east from the gated fortresses of the fabled Kanye/Kardashian/Drake axis; it’s the type of neighborhood populated by dentists, lawyers, and real estate agents. They’re all the wealthy, P.T.A.-member-at-private-school type, but it’s slightly incongruous to picture Gibbs sharing a property line with a periodontist.

Give credit to Gibbs’s gift for world-building that this duality exists between the affable, shit-talking NBA junkie, and the persona of Freddie Kane, the invincible narco don glimpsed on his classic albums with Madlib (2014’s Piñata, 2019’s Bandana) and last year’s Grammy-tabbed collaboration with the Alchemist, Alfredo. If the first half of Gibbs’s career was defined by his cutthroat murder raps, he’s gracefully eased into the role of mafia boss in bespoke Gucci. The freelance hitter leveling up into the shot-calling O.G. that you approach when you need a favor.

His journey has few if any parallels in hip-hop: Left for dead by his first label, Interscope, he clawed his way to indie acclaim by becoming one of the most celebrated artists of the blog era. Despite selling out venues worldwide, industry perception relegated him to the underground. But over the past five years, his career has exploded to where, a few months shy of his 39th birthday, he’s exponentially more popular than ever before. Last year, he signed to Warner Records, received his first solo Grammy nomination, and regularly entered conversations for the best rapper alive. Hip-hop’s Hank Aaron—he may never have hit 50 home runs in a season, but none can match the startling consistency of his power numbers—has become its Barry Bonds, embarking on a steroidal tear in his late 30s that has defied space, time, and lung capacity.

“It’s all about hitting those 30 to 40 home runs a year. I ain’t trying to hit 51 a year, get 12 the next, and be in the minor leagues,” Gibbs says, taking a drag of a blunt inside his all-business, black-walled studio. A flat screen TV plays ESPN. “If all I make is $50,000 a show for the rest of my career, then cool. I know a lot of muthafuckas that don’t make that in a year. I’m not greedy in this game. … A lot of things are opening up now. Looking back, I’d rather it be like this, rather than early in my career when I was too young to understand and handle it.”

The one-time best-kept secret has deservedly entered the upper echelon. The former high school all-conference wide receiver and safety, recruited to play at Ball State (he dropped out his freshman year), is now the favorite artist of future NBA Hall of Famers.

“It just feels like he’s only hitting his prime now,” says Gibbs’s close friend, Brooklyn Nets forward Kevin Durant. “He can make records with anyone, but still has that versatility and killer mentality in the booth. You can tell how much he cares about his art and no one is more authentic. In his music, you can see both the humor and the pain.”

To understand where the pain comes from and the significance of his evolution, you have to go back to his first breakthrough. I met Gibbs in late 2009, shortly after he dropped the pair of mixtapes that changed his life, The Miseducation of Freddie Gibbs and Midwestgangstaboxframecadillacmuzik. The former was largely comprised of uncleared songs from his never-released Interscope debut; the latter was his first statement of purpose—a lacerating double-timed bounce that announced Gibbs as virtuosic heir to the Midwest lightning rap of Bone Thugs-N-Harmony and Twista, the filthy country soul of UGK and Devin the Dude, the me-against-the-world ferocity of 2Pac, and the Zoloft and codeine harmonies of Z-Ro.

The music was uniformly excellent, but to call Gibbs raw was an understatement. When I visited him that winter, he was still living in Van Nuys, in a rundown apartment building on a seedy block littered with condom wrappers, shattered 40-ounce bottles, and overturned shopping carts. We demolished three blunts in 90 minutes, and then he told me about how one of his great hobbies in his hometown of Gary, Indiana, was robbing trains. By the time I left the complex, I was so high that I’d forgotten my own weed inside. When I went back to retrieve it, he told me that he could get me “all the dope I wanted on the low.” All I had to do was say the word.

I had coke in that spot, I had pills in that spot,” Gibbs says, taking a drag of a blunt inside his studio. In his 20s, Gibbs looked like the guy they should’ve cast to play 2Pac in the biopic. Nowadays, he just looks like Freddie Gibbs: lanky but muscular, sporting a freshly shaved scalp and goatee. And he’s possessed by an intelligent, subdued intensity that can still become an inferno in the wrong scenario.

“I’d just gotten a publishing check and used it to go buy more drugs,” he continues. “I ain’t pay no taxes. I was like, ‘All right, I’ve got to trap until I get a record deal.’ It’s a difficult thing to give up when you’re in a part of something that all your homies eat off of; the homies ain’t eating off of rap like you.”

Freddie Gibbs performs at a concert in Berlin, Germany, on November 1, 2019.
Freddie Gibbs performs at a concert in Berlin, Germany, on November 1, 2019.
Frank Hoensch/Redferns

It’s already difficult to remember how different things appeared a decade ago. When Gibbs made the XXL Freshman list in April 2010, streaming had yet to take hold in the United States. Unless you were a radio fixture, physical sales were practically nonexistent. It was the age of Tumblr rap and Odd Future, melodic pop crossovers like Drake and Wiz Khalifa; Brick Squad and Waka Flocka ran Atlanta. No lane yet existed for Gibbs. He was too young for the nostalgia circuit and too hardcore for the ruins of the backpack underground. He lacked cosigns and the corporate machine of mainstream gangsta rap—which was then receiving postmortems in the wake of Kanye outselling 50 Cent.

His interzone existence was best embodied by a 2010 bill at Echo Park’s Echoplex, where Gibbs was sandwiched between canonical headliner GZA and first opener Kendrick Lamar. The Compton rapper dropped Overly Dedicated two weeks later, which led to his coronation by Dr. Dre, and the rest is Pulitzer history. In contrast to his peers, Gibbs appeared star-crossed. Part of it was a matter of circumstance. Gary had a glass ceiling. Even though it was just 25 miles away, Chicago never claimed the original home of the Jackson 5, and L.A. wasn’t quick to embrace Gibbs either. A cover story that I wrote on him at the old LA Weekly elicited gripes and false assumptions from many quarters of the local rap world. No one denied his talent, but even though he’d lived in the city on and off since the mid-2000s, Gibbs would never be considered a real L.A. rapper within the factional city-state.

“At that time, there was no one in L.A. rapping better than me. If I was from L.A., I would have been an even huger rapper, sooner,” Gibbs says. “Time’s changed now. Geography used to have a big part in what you did and the base that supported you. I had to find that base, and I didn’t have that in Gary, so I moved here and basically stuck my flag in the ground from L.A. to the Bay, and with this internet shit. I made it easier for guys from small towns to be known.”

The Gary sensibilities remain deeply ingrained, but for those first years in L.A, the lethal mentality cultivated on the east side of the Rust Belt homicide capital defined his every move. After his current manager, Ben “Lambo” Lambert, discovered him on a now-defunct mixtape site, Gibbs signed a deal at Interscope via Joe “3H” Weinberger (famed for being the guy that Kanye shouts out on “Last Call”). But with the industry amidst its post-Napster free fall, the label couldn’t figure out what to do with him. In an alternate timeline, 50 Cent signs Freddie Gibbs to replace Game in G-Unit; instead, he signed Hot Rod (if you Google “Hot Rod Rapper,” among the first things that comes up is the YouTube video “What Happened to Hot Rod?”).

“I was so fucking mad because I knew that if [G-Unit] didn’t sign me, then I was going to be dropped by Interscope,” Gibbs says, the disdain mostly gone, but enough still lingering in the chamber. “My six months there was like an audition period, then it was just like, ‘We don’t got anything to do with you.’ I was always inspired by 50 and really wanted to get beside him and learn, but everything happens for a reason.”

The streets temporarily emerged victorious. He lived all over South Central: 43rd and Main Street, 55th and Estrella, on Figueroa. Bagging up weight and moving it out of town. He caught a couple of gun charges, dodged some drug indictments on technicalities, and spent a few nights in the Twin Towers. Eventually, the gravity of his life boomeranged him home, then to Atlanta to join a pregnant girlfriend. Tragedy struck. She lost the child; his grandmother died; he developed a pill addiction; he nearly was killed in a shoot-out. He’d completely abandoned rap, and time wasn’t on his side. Had it not been for the late Joshua Fadem (a.k.a. Josh the Goon), there would be no Freddie Gibbs as we know him.

You can’t write a comprehensive Freddie Gibbs profile without mentioning Josh the Goon, who tragically died of an enlarged heart in 2017. The Goon looked like if Pugsley Addams was in the Z-Boys of Dogtown and carried brass knuckles to school. A card-carrying member of the “too rare to live, too weird to die” prototype, the Jewish hardcore punk from Venice turned rap engineer refused to let Gibbs quit. After the Goon made a half-dozen offers to buy him a plane ticket and let him crash on his couch, Gibbs finally relented. For those familiar with Gibbs lore, the late 2000s are fabled. When the Goon went to work every day, Gibbs would cook up crack, then he’d venture out to Santa Monica Boulevard to indulge in street pharmacy.

“The cocaine was so easy to sell. I would get an ounce for like $800, and I’d be cutting like $1,700 off of that ounce of crack. That was my daily routine,” Gibbs says. “I’d been selling crack since high school. I had a friend that would give us these $50 double-ups and you’d get your two dope fiends to buy it from you and make 100 bucks.”

There was a Real World–style house in Hollywood, where Gibbs rented a room and began to make a small fortune by adding soft cocaine to his repertoire. The spot was run by a South African expat who started sleeping with Gibbs, and attempted to bribe him into a green card marriage.

“She’s trying to give me $25,000 to marry her,” Gibbs remembers, laughing. “I was like, ‘Hell no. … Bitch, I sell crack. I’ve got $25,000 in my mattress. What’s wrong with you?’”

By night, he recorded what became Midwestboxframecadillacmuzik. It’s not particularly surprising to learn about the parallel drugs and hip-hop paths of the man who rapped the hook “God made me sell crack, so I had somethin’ to rap about.” But what’s most impressive is how adeptly Gibbs shape-shifted between worlds. He’d go from having the lead singer of the Black Keys on a hook and incinerating collaborations with EDM trap producers, to investing in a weapons arsenal.

“It’s difficult to be at war and rap at the same time because you have to focus on something,” Gibbs says. “Eighty percent of that time that I sold drugs, I was at war with other gangs, other plugs. I come from a robbing background, and you can only rob so many people before it comes back on you. A lot of the drug money that we made, we were spending on going to war, on staying alive. Not just feeding ourselves, housing, clothing; it was on bullets.”

By 2012, escape appeared within reach. Young Jeezy tabbed him to become an affiliate in his CTE crew. Simultaneously, Gibbs forged a creative union with Madlib, the sampledelic Sun Ra of hip-hop, fully ingratiating him to the subterranean masses. But the Jeezy partnership swiftly dissolved (at one point, he told Gibbs that he wasn’t “turning up enough”). And while his first Madlib LP was a critical and commercial success, he couldn’t dissolve his underworld ties. About eight months after Piñata dropped, Gibbs was shot at from close range outside of the Rough Trade venue in Brooklyn. The gunman fired from just a few feet away and hit two members of Gibbs’s entourage but missed Gibbs; if he had possessed halfway decent aim, the story would have ended there.

Instead, Gibbs kept adding to his arms cache. In a 2015 interview, after the birth of his first child—a daughter named Irie—he told me that he had between 50 and 100 guns, purchasing “two for every month that she’s been born.” Behind the scenes, his close friend Dominican H—shouted out on several of his songs—got knocked on drug charges. On national tours, the feds began greeting him at the airport. They started spying on him at various dope spots. The walls began to close in.

“There was real heat on me,” he says. “So I avoided that and I went to Europe and got arrested. I thought it was for some American drug shit. … I was like, ‘Man, fuck, they got me way over here? What’s going on?’”

One by one, they slowly began to reveal their true identities. The bellboy at the Hôtel de Brienne was not a bellboy; he was with the police. The receptionist revealed her badge. The doorman pulled out his strap. Don’t think those were tourists lounging in the lobby; they were French Five-O. It was a setup; escape was impossible.

The show would not go on. The Shadow of a Doubt tour would be canceled abruptly. It was June 2, 2016, in Toulouse, an aerospace hub of about half a million people, located roughly an hour and a half from the shores of the Mediterranean; Freddie Gibbs, American rap star, was surrounded. “Whoa, what the fuck?” he exclaimed. He tried to fight them off, but then he saw the guns. “Oh shit.” Swiftly, the police handcuffed him in front of his entire touring entourage: the road manager, the tour manager, and the promoter. They frantically tried to convince the Gallic cops that this must have been some kind of mistake, but no one sends a half dozen undercovers by accident.

Gibbs’s luck had run out. This wasn’t the ’80s. Surveillance, wiretaps, and the multinational tentacles of the F.B.I. were practically inescapable. They didn’t tell Gibbs what he was being arrested for, but it seemed obvious that someone back home must’ve flipped. He’d been so careful, too. Followed all the rules of the street: don’t sell drugs in bunches, never sell them with a lot of partners. The independent freelance game means that you might take the occasional loss, and you’ll never make Big Meech money. But it offered a way to turn the upper-middle-class rap cash into actual wealth. Drugs were always a means to an end. Get what you can out of it, and get the fuck out. Gibbs was so close, too. He’d finally made enough to buy land, and legitimacy was in sight. The condo-building Stringer Bell of Season 3. Now this.

They hauled him into the Toulouse jail. This wasn’t like the facility in Marina Del Rey, where after Gibbs took a gun charge, the officers asked him whether he wanted McDonald’s. (It turned out that the gun was registered, and they released him after a few hours.) The Toulouse jail was probably closer to the dungeon near LAX—the penitentiary where the LAPD took Gibbs after catching him with three or four pounds of weed, and where a brawl broke after someone tried to test him. (Forty-eight hours later, he paid the bond, and when he eventually got to court, the judge somehow mistook the confiscated amount for a lowly 3.5 grams. Case dismissed.)

There would be no happy accidents this time. The French jails were nasty and sloppy. Frequent race wars broke out, meaning they segregated Gibbs with the Black inmates, most of whom were African-born and didn’t speak English. “Oh my God, this is like the penitentiary part two,” he muttered to himself. Everyone chain-smoked. He could barely breathe. Two or three days later, they told him that he’d been arrested for sexual assault. Bail was denied until the matter could be properly sorted.

The guards teased him in broken English, mockingly telling him to rap. Camera phones out. Nightly news reports were beamed into the jail, offering sensationalized reports of the American rapper accused of the vile crime. Horrible scenarios flashed through his head. He thought he might not get to see his baby daughter again until she’s a teenager. He had to convince his then-fiancée that he’s innocent. Then there is his career. As soon as word of his arrest was reported in the United States, public opinion turned.

“I hate rapists, so to be considered that was one of the worst things in life,” he tells me a half-decade later. But at that moment, there is very little ability to tell the outside world. He’s not allowed to use the phone for roughly a week. When he is, calls are limited to his mom, his fiancée, and his manager, Lambo, who begins the arduous process of arranging a defense team—which will eventually number 11 attorneys.

His arrest stemmed from one night after a show in Vienna, nearly a year before. A pair of Austrian girls—one 16, one 17—made their way backstage, where they connected with members of Gibbs’s touring party. The girls eventually returned with the party to the hotel. Gibbs says that he went back to his room alone to sleep. The next morning, the women filed a police report stating that one of Gibbs’s friends had sexually abused them. Gibbs was not named in the report, nor were any charges immediately brought against him.

The report said that Gibbs’s friend had sex with both women at different junctures in the night; the Austrian age of consent is 14, so technically the illegality had to do with the women’s drinks possibly being spiked backstage, impairing them to the point that consent was impossible. A week after the incident, the Austrian police contacted Gibbs’s booking agency to inform them that there was a warrant out for his friend’s arrest. The alleged offender, a street dude from Gary, only in Europe to accompany his childhood friend, was by then back in the States. The matter remained at a standstill until Gibbs returned to Europe 11 months later. Without warning, the girls went back to the Austrian police and changed their story to implicate Gibbs. He was officially charged with “sexual abuse of a defenseless or psychologically impaired person.”

“The girl said, ‘I had a flashback that Freddie Gibbs was involved in this rape, too,’” Gibbs told XXL in 2017. “A dream that I was also involved. Basically I got indicted for a so-called flashback, a dream.”

After two weeks in Toulouse, Gibbs finally posted his 50,000 euro bail. The terms of his bond required him to stay in France and to check in weekly with the courts, forcing him to spend a fortune on short-term rentals. He kept hoping that the charges would be dropped or that maybe the French or American governments would deny his extradition to Austria. But the situation wouldn’t disappear without a fight.

An extradition deal was brokered. After several months in France, the Austrian courts agreed to let Gibbs avoid prison while his case was pending. But as soon as he touched down in Vienna, they immediately reneged. He’d have to stay behind bars for the weekend, until the matter could be properly cleared up. Come Monday, it was revealed that the judge who granted his stay of freedom was on a month-long vacation. He was forced to tell his story to an entirely new magistrate, who didn’t believe him, and forced him to temporarily remain in investigative custody. This became 37 days in the Vienna jail.

In the Austrian penal system, there is no separation between jail and prison. You don’t get sent upstate after being convicted of a crime. This is where they bring drunks after a rowdy night in the Spittelberg district, and this is where inveterate criminals serve their bid. It’s akin to a U.S. federal prison. In Austria, Gibbs had it doubly bad. The Africans didn’t fuck with him because he’s American. The skinheads didn’t fuck with him because he’s Black. Placed in a cellblock full of rapists, his fury mounted at being grouped with the humans he despises most. Swastikas adorned the walls. But as long as he was alive and breathing, the U.S. embassy couldn’t care less.

Days and nights were spent praying and writing raps. The genesis of Bandana traces back to this mournful period of isolation. He read more than he had since leaving school a decade and a half before, as his fiancée brought him books: a lot of Gil Scott-Heron and Elijah Muhammad; A Tale of Two Cities and The Autobiography of Malcolm X. But most Black-themed literature was denied by the prison censors. The one time they took him to the prison library, every book was in German. On trips to the yard, racial slurs greeted him.

His fiancée would visit with his daughter, and every session left Gibbs haunted by the notion that this would be the last time he ever saw her. The low point arrived when the authorities appeared in his cellblock accompanied by a translator. They all spoke clear English, but this was another way to intimidate him, to try to win a conviction and gain political clout.

“They told me, ‘Just go ahead and admit to this shit and we’ll give you three years … Try to fight us, we’ll be sure you get the maximum 10,’” Gibbs says today. “I said, ‘You’re going to make sure that I get the max 10 years with no evidence of me even having sex with this girl?’ He’s like, ‘You’ll do a year and a half, and then you’ll go back to your country.’ I said, ‘Nah, because if I admit to this shit, my name will be fucked up.’ And I didn’t do it.”

A trial date was set for September 30, 2016. In Austria, you don’t get a jury of your peers. The whims of four white Austrian judges would determine his fate. After almost four months in jail, his destiny unfolded in a two-hour trial conducted entirely in German. Vehemently denying Gibbs had any physical contact with the women, his defense team presented video surveillance footage from the Vienna hotel showing the women walking under their own volition, before and after the incident—as well as them hanging out in the hotel lobby. Two witnesses from the hotel—an employee and a guest, neither of whom Gibbs knew before that night—testified on his behalf. The DNA evidence completely exonerated Gibbs, revealing no sexual contact between him and the women. Timestamped selfies were exhibited showing Gibbs alone in his room at the time the women said the assault was taking place. The prosecution’s evidence hinged largely on suggestive rap lyrics from Gibbs’s catalog and the women’s testimony, delivered via video conference.

There was no translator at the trial, so for its duration, Gibbs relied on facial readings and winks from his lawyer to guess at how he’d be spending the next decade.

“Imagine sitting listening to a bunch of Austrians talk in German, deciding my fate,” he says today in his studio. “I was nervous as fuck. I didn’t know what these people were going to do. I still think about it. That was the most nervous day of my life.”

Without much deliberation, the judges delivered their verdicts, one by one: not guilty … not guilty … not guilty … not guilty.

The four months of psychological and physical agony, racist taunts, debilitating stress, and forced isolation from his family were suddenly over. Gibbs was immediately free to come home. Whatever that might mean.

You don’t really recover from that type of experience. The trauma remains, but people figure out ways to negotiate around it. At first, Gibbs didn’t ever want to rap again. That life—the constant attention, the one-sided demands, the vultures—had nearly caused his downfall. Nightmares plagued him. A disciple of 2Pac, the parallels felt unmistakable. He’d survived an attempt on his life in New York, then served time after being charged with sexual assault due to an incident involving his hangers-on; we all know what happened next. Now, Gibbs was in his mid-30s, the time when most rappers start to fall off, if they haven’t already.

“I didn’t really want to rap anymore. I didn’t even want to be famous,” Gibbs says. “Let me just do something else and get myself right.”

What did you think of doing?” I ask.

“Selling drugs again.”

By that point, he’d been selling drugs for more than half his life, longer than he’d been rapping. At some point in the past decade, the different sides of Freddie Gibbs started to converge. When you call yourself Gangsta Gibbs, it comes with the understanding that you’ll be constantly tested. Besides, the lure of fast money was so strong, especially since he started with so little.

Freddie Gibbs performs at the 2015 TIME Festival in Toronto, Canada, on August 15, 2015.
Freddie Gibbs performs at the 2015 TIME Festival in Toronto, Canada, on August 15, 2015.
Emma McIntyre/Getty Images

“Once I created the Gangsta Gibbs persona, it took over me,” Gibbs says. “To a certain extent, I had to keep living up to it. That can put you in a twist, in the streets and the music. I know a lot of young guys feel that way, but luckily, I had that balance, I had Lambo.”

It’s reductive to chalk up the Gibbs-Lambo union as simply that of artist and manager. It’s more of a creative partnership that achieved true symbiosis only in the past few years. After Gibbs first returned to L.A. in 2008, Lambo and Archibald “Archie” Bonkers served as his co-managers until 2014, when Lambo officially became the sole guru. Lambo understood that it wasn’t his place to lecture Gibbs on leaving street life, but served as a sympathetic support system and sounding board until he was finally ready.

The platonic vision for Gibbs’s long-term career was the Grateful Dead, beloved by a massive cult audience, scoring their biggest commercial hit deep into their history.

“The Dead didn’t have a hit until the late ’80s, and then they never did again, but they had a big fan base that loved them because they were the realest; that’s always how I’ve seen Freddie’s career,” says Lambo, who in addition to managing Gibbs works as an A&R and marketing manager at Innovative Leisure, the L.A. independent label standard-bearer. “The Dead might not always hit the right note, but they were always themselves and took risks. Freddie isn’t afraid to take a risk. And we knew that if you always do great stuff, people will eventually notice.”

Beyond fully recommitting himself to rap, Gibbs learned to let go. Without switching up his bulletproof mentality, he revealed his full personality to the world: the natural entertainer with the comic gift for invective and mimicry, especially after a bottle of Hennessy. Being one of the hardest rappers alive didn’t mean that you couldn’t have a sense of humor.

To promote 2018’s Freddie, they created an ingenious viral marketing campaign, where Gibbs wore a leisure suit open at the collar, à la Teddy Pendergrass, and crooned boudoir ballads in a fake disco-era infomercial. He let the chopper spray on social media, creating a slipstream of chaotic jokes, tender love for his children, and a bunny rabbit suit that I still don’t quite understand. At one point, he got a little too Richard Pryor for the Instagram censors, but a quasi-secret Gibbs burner account flourishes.

N----- be hating,” Gibbs says of his IG ban. “They got me kicked off because muthafuckas got pussy-ass feelings about my posts, and I’m just trying to post funny shit. Only Mark Zuckerberg can get me my account back.”

Of course, none of this would matter if the new music didn’t rank among the best of his career. The third wave officially began to crest with Bandana, which finished 2019 as the 11th-highest-rated album (all genres) on critical aggregate site Metacritic. Released on RCA, it marked Gibbs’s first actual release on a major label, a 360-degree journey for the former Interscope refugee. Madlib and Gibbs’s first project answered the question of what Madlib beats would sound like if the ghosts of the soul samples were killed twice by a trained rap assassin with mathematical precision. But Bandana finds MadGibbs as a legitimate group: loose and uninhibited, they craft a narcotic blaxploitation masterpiece costarring Anderson .Paak, Killer Mike, Black Thought, Yasiin Bey, and Pusha T. The collaborative choices were clear: Gibbs had put in the work and earned the right to be enshrined in the hall of game.

“He can adapt to any style or genre you throw at him while maintaining his own style and flow. He sings, raps, and I’ve seen him do live comedy better than some of these comedians,” Madlib says. “With Piñata, we really didn’t know each other musically or in life, but hung out a lot since then and I studied his past discography and tried to go a little more in his direction on Bandana. And I think he had time to listen to my beat tapes a little more and fit inside of those beats. To rap on my shit, you have to have a good ear and feel; my style is non-quantized so I like to speed up and slow down some of my tracks to test whoever is rapping. Gibbs is one of my favorite MCs: a mix between gangsta shit and straight up raw hip-hop.”

If it was surprising that Alfredo received the Best Rap Album nomination, it’s only because the Grammys rarely recognize anything so proudly and purposefully un-commercial. And neither Alchemist nor Gibbs publicly or privately campaigned for the recognition. The notion of the pair collaborating on a full-length project had been the fantasy of rap reply guys since Gibbs delivered an eternal hip-hop quotable on 2011’s “Scottie Pippen.” They kept the ambition simple and executed meticulously. If Madlib’s beats were a triangle offense of constant movement and tricky angles, Alchemist’s were perfectly lobbed alley-oops. Alfredo is a symphonic highlight reel of air-walking windmill dunks. Rap as NBA Jam demolition with snippets from The Original Kings of Comedy substituted for “HE’S HEATING UP.”

If you started an academy to teach people how to rap (admittedly, the worst idea ever conceived), you would assign “1985” as core curriculum. The last song recorded for Alfredo, Gibbs called Alchemist to tell him that he “cracked the God flow” during a shroom trip in the studio with BJ the Chicago Kid. Over a peyote button disguised as a guitar loop, Gibbs brags about traveling with a cocaine circus like Michael Jordan in ’85 (and dropped it about a week or two after that Last Dance episode aired). He blacks out in that hypnotic zone where everything seems to slow down: His baritone slices in double time without breaking a sweat; it dips and dives into concealed pockets of the beat, ransacking it, toying with it like a rope-a-dope and then flattening it with crushing force. It strikes a caliber of technical mastery and granite melodies that only a handful of rappers have ever reached.

“[Gibbs has] so many bags that he digs into,” says Alchemist. “When he works, he’s like a pair of pants with 18 pockets and zippers; he can go anywhere. He has a unique style because he grew up in Indiana: The flow has a Midwest or Southern [influence], but he grew up listening to West Coast and East Coast rap too. It makes the songs really entertaining and the rhythms crazy. I gotta give credit to Madlib too—the two projects they did really opened doors for this style of music. Those albums are incredible and could be nominated for a Grammy. They took the steps and did the hard work.”

It’s partially timing too. A decade ago, a space for Gibbs didn’t exist. But alongside his ascent, like-minded rappers like Roc Marciano, Danny Brown, Pusha T, Run the Jewels, Griselda, Earl Sweatshirt, and Armand Hammer have helped bridge the traditional divide between rugged, widow-making rap and experimental flights of innovation. Gibbs synthesized the classic pistol grip stomp of gangsta rap and welded it to the helter-skelter haze of the best subterranean burners. He has made the mountain come to him.

“When I was a kid, I definitely didn’t know that I was going to be a rapper, but I always knew in my heart that I was going to be something important; it just turned out to be this,” Gibbs says. “Now, I want to be the best at it, the best rapper. I want them to talk about me the same way that they talk about Jay-Z and Scarface, and I think I’m on the path.”

Jeff Weiss is the founder and editor of POW. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, and GQ.

The Press Box

The Spoiler-Free Shohei Sweepstakes, Person(s) of the Year, and an Oscar Contender That’s Really a Journalism Movie


Joe Hisaishi Is Studio Ghibli’s Unsung MVP


‘Bandsplain’ x ‘60 Songs That Explain the ’90s’ LIVE

View all stories in Music