Freddie Gibbs has steadily been releasing mixtapes since 2004, but it was from 2009 when he really started to create big waves as well as putting his hometown Gary, Indiana (birthplace of Michael Jackson) on the Hip Hop map. His 2010 mixtape Str8 Killa No Filla cemented him as a rising star to watch out for and the following year this was furthered by Cold Day in Hell, which made its way on many best mixtapes of the year lists. Apart from being known for his distinctive baritone and a merciless flow, he widened his spectrum of listeners by collaborating with legendary LA beat-smith Madlib. Through this collaboration, we had a treat in seeing a straight up gangsta rapper (mentored by Young Jeezy!) from a trap background effortlessly dropping rapid, double-time bars on top of quirky, crate-dug soul samples and ending up with something curiously brilliant. And this was what made Cold Day in Hell such a stand out release; ghetto-smart introspect flowing over relaxed, jazzy productions with singers on hooks which added sincerity to the harsh environment he portrays. The great thing about Gibbs is, he doesn’t have to necessarily be sidelined with ferocious trap anthems to give weight to his heavy subject matter, he shines brightest when joined with softer instrumentals that conflict with his lyrical content – the Baby Faced Killa mixtape proved this as well. But Gibbs hasn’t had the best experience within the music industry, and after having been dropped from Interscope in 2007 he later found a new home at Young Jeezy’s CTE. This didn’t end too favourably either and the two have fallen out since. Nevertheless Freddie Gibbs knows that he has built enough of a following through his impressive mixtapes that he can now independently release to his fans. So ESGN is essentially a big ‘fuck you’ to the industry and Jeezy. It is a shame for Gibbs however that this can’t be said with more quirky soul samples.
Instead of working on building up the unique sound he was already establishing for himself through the mixtapes, Gibbs really takes a step back and merges with the crowd on this. A large chunk of the album is dedicated to driving home the fact that Gangsta Gibbs is ’bout that life, with tales of neighbourhood killa’s and cocaine dealers over your typical, pistol-polishing, ign’ant trap beats. ‘Lay it Down’ is the most menacing out of these. A song that could spur a homicide and is sure to make people ‘turnt up’ in clubs. But these tracks come from the same branch as the nearby Southside Chicago drill scene, which is unusual for a Gibbs later release as he has never had, back to back, such aggressive tracks and will surely alienate fans who were used to him rapping over something a little more varied. The album starts with six of these type of tracks before ‘I Seen a Man Die’ arrives, a song which is appreciated very much once it does, not because it’s great but because it’s different and more soothing — even if it is about witnessing someone’s death.
The production starts to (very) slowly warm up as the album progresses. The lyrics however stay one dimensional, which of course could be down to habitual circumstances but will be a definite weakness for Gibbs in the long run. ‘Eastside Moonwalker’ has that late-night cruising vibe while ‘F.A.M.E.’ credits his west-coast influence. From the way he says ‘enemies’ to the feature, in the form Daz Dillinger, (a member of prominent G-Funk group Tha Dogg Pound) are all nods towards Tupac. This LA thug-life connect is continued with ‘Certified Live’, which is a more accessible gang-banger track helped by the less love-spreading and more gang-active black hippie Jay Rock. ‘The Color Purple’ is Gibbs’s ode to his drank of choice but it’s already made irrelevant because of ‘Paper’ which is a considerably better tribute and a song that makes ridin’ dirty in a smoked out box-frame Cadillac while sippin’ on some Texas Tea an appealing way to spend an evening.
‘Freddie Soprano’ arrives as a reminder for us all that Gibbs is malleable enough to rap over anything. He rides the drums like a machine gun that sprays bullets until everything in the way has been left for smoking rubble, while the instrumental is a refreshing break from all the nauseating trap of before. Unfortunately it also reminds us to question why Freddie Gibbs hasn’t opted having more variety and brilliance like this, if anything it was the discordant link between laid back beats and troubled ghetto imagery that made UGK so popular (a big influence on Gibbs) and Tupac even. But it seems, although his mixtapes were much more accessible, they could have been perceived as poppy-er sounding and Gibbs may well be making a statement by keeping it as gangsta and confrontational as possible. Gibbs stated “at the time I was making this ESGN album, it was ‘Fuck Jeezy Every Day’ and that’s what you got from this album” and we really got that, in one way or another.
Freddie Gibbs seems to be more concerned about representing his hometown and keeping it real for his homies who probably would rather hear songs about Pyrex crack cooking and get wild to some str8 slamming tracks while keeping the cup muddy, instead of BJ the Chicago Kid’s crooning. Which might be great for them but will hardly be appreciated by the wider spectrum he has reached through his previous material. This is also exemplified by the absence of romantic songs — the closest we get in ESGN is a song about a white bitch called Cocaina and ‘187’, which could rival ‘Lay it Down’ in its aggression. The sampling of Ninjaman on the last track ‘Murda Dem’ is fitting as Gibbs is in many ways similar to the troubled dancehall legend; many of the tracks on ESGN are warning signals to any rivals who are willing to test his lyrical or gangsta credibility, especially after CTE, Gibbs might feel a little vulnerable. The ubiquitous gangsta image has been entwined with Hip Hop for more than two decades now and is evidently still a big hit, but it quickly gets tiresome and even for Gibbs who has the cadence, timing and delivery of a heavyweight, it’s unlikely to be enough for him to last if he carries on in the same direction as ESGN. Most of the new found fans will be relying on the next Madlib collaboration, so Gibbs can display his versatility and escape the generic trap zone.