This is the type of idea that can’t go wrong. Piñata might not even work as a front-to-back listen, but it’s a damn near guarantee you’re going to get good raps over left-field beats. That’s what’s expected, and that’s what’s given, but that’s not all. Freddie Gibbs and Madlib don’t reflect off each other in the way Action Bronson and Party Supplies bring out the best in each other when they meet. There’s a sense of reverence that extends beyond chemistry.
It’s strange, but perhaps Piñata’s biggest charm is symbolized in the title’s genesis. “I’ma tell you the truth, man. I had a dream, dog, that I had a little baby,” Gibbs explains before noting it was a likely a child of Latino descent. Gangsta Gibbs likes Latinas. “That nigga wanted a piñata, man, in the dream, man. I don’t know. I must’ve been cooking some dope or some shit that week, because the nigga started hitting the piñata, and it wasn’t shit but dope falling out the piñata. I was just like, ‘Damn, man.’ They was just kids playing in the dope.”
What makes it uncanny is how nightmares find a way to intrude upon fantasy. That’s the sort of duality that drives the direction of Piñata. The gravel-voiced Gibbs is known for his technically sound delivery of impoverished grime. Madlib’s tricky blaxploitation production doesn’t only force Gibbs to push his abilities, but also gives him a space to explore a new perspective. On Piñata, Gibbs walks a tightrope between the lucid and the lurid, earthy realities and ethereal desires — albeit ones with a foot in common vices. The album’s cohesiveness doesn’t detract from its airy, free-flowing movement, whether it’s through Danny Brown manifesting as the all too ephemeral high before the crash on “High” or Gibbs channeling Jay Z to threaten former boss Jeezy on the ethering “Real”.
It’s as if Gibbs’ perspective has widened to 360 degrees here, and the festive percussion on “Supplier” is the kick to the entrance door of that viewpoint. The following track, “Scarface”, finds him doing verbal acrobatics through an inner city metropolis. He’s robbing someone because “he got some shit we can’t afford” before vividly firing blots of details about bloodied bodies, morgues, and getting a foot in the drug game. This comes right before he waxes in a conversationalist tone over the aquatic soul of standout “Deeper”.
Later on “Thuggin”, Gibbs wanders onto the rumbling bass line and the entrancing, high octave strings with the awareness of a schizophrenic. The side chatter turns into self-interrogation, and the beat rises as if it’s interrupting the conversation: “Niggas be like, ‘Fred, you ain’t never lied’/ Fuck the rap shit my gangsta been solidified.” Gibbs slips back into cadence for a verse that breathlessly travels sharp reaffirmation (“Selling you the science of the street rap/ Every motherfuckin’ show I do is off the meat rack”), drug game defense (“Why the Feds worried ’bout me clocking on this corner/ When there’s politicians out here getting popped in Arizona”), and heartbreaking autobiography (“My uncle last bitch put him on the glass dick/ Tried to rob a man to feed his habit, he got blasted”). “Thuggin” is a years-old track that’s still a standout. In fact, Piñata, on the whole, is a syncopated project that never loses its life.
Madlib’s production is a personality in itself, and part of what makes Piñata so organic is the way in which Gibbs interacts with the sepia backdrops. The track can change pitch and chug at high tempos for claustrophobia on songs like “Shitsville”, and it can evoke starry psychedelia to increase that space on songs like “Uno”. Unsurprisingly, Gibbs is just as versatile and can switch between styles on a whim. Hell, he even sings a bit of Babyface within the coos and haze of “Robes”. The two things that are a constant are the impressive nature of Madlib’s production and Gibbs’ focus.
MadGibbs isn’t inclusive in its benefits either. Guest features manage to slide in and deliver with solid efficacy. Earl Sweatshirt’s intricacies on “Robes” don’t hide his self-effacing witticisms (“Leave like the father I never had or a low Caesar/ The son he had but ain’t never wanted like cold pizza”), and Scarface puts on his best OG act (“If money is the root to what the evil is/ It’s a mandatory for me to live”) on “Broken”. Piñata comes with just enough to reduce the daunting 17-track length to a non-factor, although it drags a bit with overt nostalgia toward the fourth quarter. But sometimes nostalgia is good, especially when it’s interpreted with the right amount of imagination.
Essential Tracks: “Thuggin”, “Deeper”, and “Robes”