Freddie Gibbs isn't a hashtag MC, punch-line rhymer, or a lyrical samurai. And his hip-hop isn't a place for stand-up comedy routines. You won't find one skit on his breakout mixtape from last year, Str8 Killa No Filla. This doesn't mean the Gary, Indiana-bred rapper (who now lives in Los Angeles) doesn't have a sense of humor. He just prefers unfiltered honesty over cheap jokes.
All this makes it easy to dismiss Gibbs as a throwback to rap's golden age, when MCs were super-serious about their vocation. But listen closely, and you'll hear a guy who isn't afraid to cut loose from time to time and drop smart, sly references. Check out "Slangin' Rocks," which cheekily reimagines the Whispers' pop and R&B 1985 chart-topper "Rock Steady" as an ode to dope-slinging perseverance.
"I know a lot about crack cocaine," says Gibbs. "My mom and dad always listened to the song by the Whispers, so I took it, flipped it, and made something fun and crazy with it."
Gibbs' rocky road on the path to one of 2010's biggest rap stories wasn't fun, by any stretch of the imagination. But crazy sure fits. The 28-year-old Gibbs grew up the son of a failed musician. He worked the impoverished streets of Gary as a drug dealer before finding his way as a gangsta rapper. Interscope Records signed him a few years back, so he moved out west. Then they dropped him. So Gibbs started selling drugs again to make ends meet. He then began self-releasing one hard-hitting, no-bullshit mixtape after another, which got him noticed by The New Yorker and other prestigious publications.
Spend enough time with Gibbs' two 2009 releases — The Miseducation of Freddie Gibbs and Midwestgangstaboxframe-cadillacmuzik — and his Everyman appeal reveals itself. Gibbs makes straight-up Great Recession rap, born of rank desperation, socioeconomic calamity, and gotta-get-by hustle. When Gibbs says he grew up "among the crack babies and the Flintstone kids" on "Midwest Malcolm (Inhale)," this isn't just a coke-rap wink. The MC means it literally. Lyrics like "couldn't afford a baby crib, so I slept up in a sock drawer" (from "Murda on My Mind") are less ha-ha sitcom funny and more slice-of-life Good Times real.
For every murderous boast or felony-worthy dash down memory lane, Gibbs offers a grim reality check and sigh of regret. There are plenty of dead-eyed pimp jams and Ghostface-indebted shifty-wife tales running through Gibbs' work. But just as often there are relentless on-the-grind bangers. On one of his best, "Crushing Feelings" (from Str8 Killa No Filla), Gibbs' fluid flow slams major labels, buddies up with hustlers of all stripes, and acknowledges that rhyming isn't much different than any other job. "Sometimes I have to work on deck, sometimes I 9-to-5 it," he raps. "You boastin' about ballin', I rhyme about surviving."
"I'm blue-collar rap," says Gibbs. "That's the best way to describe it. The people who listen to me understand this Midwest blue-collar shit. You've definitely gotta rep where you're from. If you don't do that, you don't know where you're going."
From all indications, Gibbs is moving up. He's headlined major music fests (including the indie-blessed Pitchfork Music Festival), blown up all over the internet, and made some high-profile friends over the past year. (He's also gotten into some trouble: He's currently on probation for a gun charge.)
He's also launched a new music project with rapper pals Bun B and Chuck Inglish called Pulled Over by the Cops. The trio teamed up on last year's "Oil Money," which also features Cleveland rapper Chip Tha Ripper and the Black Keys' Dan Auerbach. There's no release date yet. "We're all busy," says Gibbs. "We just wanna make sure it's perfect."
Next month, Gibbs will release the Cold Day in Hell EP, which will be followed by the long-awaited Baby-Faced Killer album. The title is a nod to his old dope-slingin' days, when Gibbs was the youngest of his crew of dealers. "I've been working on that my whole life, I just didn't know it," says Gibbs. He's not yet sure how it will be released. "If I have to put it out for free, I will."
One thing's for sure, the Los Angeles version of Freddie Gibbs is happier than the one from Gary, Indiana. He still visits his hometown every month, "so I don't really miss living there," he says. "I came out here to pursue my career and my dreams. It's a better environment for me here. Not to mention [better] weather, weed, and women."