One rapper/one producer combos can be a tricky affair. Without the variation that comes from different production styles, MCs too often get stuck in one flow or subject, resulting in an album that feels more like alternative takes of the same song than it does a cohesive project. Madlib has never had that problem. Known for his seminal collaboration with MF DOOM, Madvillainy, as well as any number of collaborative albums with the likes of J Dilla, Blu, and Talib Kweli, the LA producer is a master of bringing the best out of any MC he works with.
On Bandana, his second album with Gary, Indiana’s Freddie Gibbs, Madlib has done it again. The pair’s first record, Piñata, was something of a curiosity upon its release in 2014. At the time, the pair were polar opposites in hip-hop; Gibbs a relatively underground, no-nonsense street rapper and Madlib a producer extraordinaire who was more likely to be found in the Blue Note archive than the trap. Nonetheless, they created a modern classic, an album that resonated with fans of both artists and plenty who weren’t overly familiar with either.
Bandana came with high expectations. Without that bolt from the blue energy, fans wondered whether the pair could hold up the standard. As soon as the first hints of Bandana hit the internet, the answer was pretty clearly, yes. Plagued by sample-clearance issues, the project was initially slated for release earlier this year, and rumors still circle about some fans receiving uncleared vinyl copies by mistake. By the time it dropped last Friday, the album had already achieved a kind of cult status.
One listen will tell you that regardless of the hype, that status is deserved. Bandana, much like its predecessor, flows like a great drama. Across 15 expertly crafted tracks, Madlib and Gibbs display a chemistry that can only be compared to Scorsese and DeNiro. Madlib serves as the director, guiding Gibbs’ gruff flow and gritty stories down different avenues, while the rapper shines in the lead role of your increasingly conscious neighborhood drug lord.
Early highlights like “Half Manne Half Cocaine” set the tone of the record with their titles alone. Gibbs speeds up his often-relaxed flow, rapping like a man constantly on the cusp of coke rage. When he commands “sit your five-dollar ass down before I make change,” it feels like he’s threatening you personally.
Madlib’s ability to deploy samples at the precise moment they’re needed is well-established, but on much of Bandana (which he may or may not have made on his iPad), he outdoes himself. Countless borrowed hooks, melodies, and background noises build a rich background which at points threaten to overwhelm Gibbs’ bars without ever fully doing so. Serene moments give birth to drum patterns that feel like a smack round the face, with Freddie following through with a sudden switch in flow or burst of energy.
Of course, any gangster movie is only as good as its ensemble cast, and Bandana’s is impeccable. Only three songs feature other artists – a far cry from the feature-laden records of many of contemporary hip-hop’s brightest stars – but when those features arrive, they elevate the entire album. In the days since Bandana’s release much has been made of Pusha-T’s verse on “Palmolive,” and rightly so – “The bezel on her ballon bleu do the Tinashe/ The bitch told me two-tone Rollies was too blasé” is probably his best couplet since “I philosophise about Glocks and Kis/ niggas call me young black Socrates” – however, the contributions of Killer Mike (also on “Palmolive”) and Anderson .Paak on “Giannis” deserve just as much shine.
Throughout the record, Gibbs is reflective. Around “Fake Names” those early bars about numb fingertips start to give way to more complex, questioning lyrics as the rapper delves into his morality. It’s not a redemption story, and as such, you’re unlikely to see Gibbs turn around and start preaching, à la his former coke-rap contemporary Malice. However, when Yasiin Bey and The Roots’ Black Thought turn up for the wonderfully retro “Education” – armed with bars about full prisons and empty schools – it’s clear something has shifted over the course of the album.
If anyone ever tries to tell you that rapping about cocaine can’t be considered high art, then you need to show them Piñata and Bandana. Together, Madlib and Freddie Gibbs have elevated the already cinematic genre to an Oscar-worthy level of grandeur. Equal parts gritty and flamboyant, with Gibbs both reveling in the fruits of his labor and watching them rot his teeth, Bandana stands toe-to-toe with the likes of Hell Hath No Fury, Reasonable Doubt or any other gold standard of the format you could name. It is, truly, an instant classic.