There’s a duality in character for a man like Freddie Gibbs. It’s a complicated dynamic underscored by a volatile balance of humor and friction: he’s a man just as influenced by fictional Blaxploitation figures like Willie Dynamite and Superfly’s Priest Youngblood as he is by complicated (and somewhat tragic) real-life icons Rick James and Richard Pryor. But let Gibbs himself tell it, he’s simply a representation of his astrology sign — the contradictory Gemini.
“My friend was just telling me, ‘You be reading the Quran and fucking reading about Black history, and then you be slapping asses at strip clubs and being on Instagram with bitches popping,” Gibbs said during our mid-afternoon ZOOM interview.
It’s this duality that’s been a core of how Gibbs has presented himself throughout his music career, especially on his latest album $oul $old $eparately. His major label debut (and fifth studio album overall), $oul $old $eparately finds Gibbs reflecting on his rise to fame in hip-hop, the risks taken and the price he’s had to pay to get there.
It’s been a long journey. In 2006, Gibbs signed to Interscope Records only to get dropped later that same year before he could even release a debut album. Then, he signed with Young Jeezy’s label CTE World, where he began his underground following through various mixtapes. But after a rift with Jeezy, Gibbs was essentially blackballed.
Forming his own label ESGN, Gibbs fostered an organic following among underground rap fans through his independent releases and collaborative albums with Madlib and The Alchemist. The critical acclaim of Bandana and Alfredo, with the latter being nominated for Best Rap Album at the 63rd Grammy Awards, opened doors Gibbs previously wasn’t able to go through, solidifying him as one of contemporary rap’s best MCs.
For Gibbs, the delay to get to this point — and the challenges and setbacks that still haunt him since embarking on this endeavor — is all the more rewarding.
“Lyrically, I feel like I’m rapping on a different kind of level right now than really anybody,” Gibbs said. “I feel like I got a load off my shoulders. And now I can kind of relax and just let people live with it.”
In our interview with Freddie Gibbs, we discussed his love for Rick James, standout tracks from $oul $old $eparately, the growth of Freddie the artist and the man, and why he is the King of R&B.
As the King of R&B, do you think we’ll ever get an R&B album from you?
Freddie Gibbs: It’s something that I’ve done. The proof’s in the pudding. Listen to my new album, you hear remnants of R&B. A whole project like that, I probably got that laying around somewhere. You can’t be the king without practicing your skills, you feel me? It’s Marvin Gaye, Luther Vandross, Rick James, Whitney Houston, and me.
Speaking of Rick James, you reference him a lot. Even down to the photo shoot for $oul $old $eparately. What is it about him that you love so much?
I like Rick James because he was a street nigga. To be honest, he was probably the first dude in music that was really selling drugs to make music, you know what I’m saying? Not only that, but he’s just a talented musician, man. And just his whole story — him going AWOL from the army and going to Canada, and then coming back as Rick James. Just the way he created the whole aura was amazing to me. He is one of the most underappreciated artists ever.
Do you feel like in some ways you’re unappreciated in music? Or do you feel like you’re starting to get those flowers and people, in a larger sense, are starting to go, “Yeah, Freddie is that guy”?
Yeah, definitely. I feel like I’m still underappreciated and underrated, though. I might be the most underrated dude in rap, to be honest. But I just use all of that as motivation. I’m thankful for the people that are starting to come around to the music now, and I’m thankful for the people that’s been fucking with it forever, so I’m not mad at all.
Let’s talk a little bit about “Grandma’s Stove.” I know you don’t go to therapy, so what was it like making a record like that?
Man, that was a rough day. I was going through it with just homies in the street, the mother of my children. I was dealing with that court stuff, and it was just a whole lot of that stuff. Really, that song was kind of like a cry for help, man. That was a depressing song. That was me dealing with depression and just letting it out.
I didn’t expect it to turn out like that when I was done with it. But man, I feel like I really lit that beat up with a lot of shit, and I was just like, “Fuck.” I didn’t really want to put it on the album at first. I was like, “Man, that’s a little bit too much.” But then I was like, “I can’t have this album without that. That’s the keystone to the project.”
What is “Rabbit Vision”? Explain that to me.
Just a clear sense, a clear mind. A lot of shit broke my heart but it fixed my vision. It was just me basically talking about things that I had to go through to get a clear view.
What about “Dark Hearted”? Over this grand and beautiful production, you seem to be expressing your consciousness. What was the process of creating that?
Shit, I’m not Pharrell. I wasn’t about to make “Happy” or nothing like that. So, when James Blake came in the studio, we listened to a couple of beats and I was like, “Yeah, that’s the exact sound. That’s how I want my whole album.”
That’s the theme of my album. When I heard that beat I was like, “Yeah, that’s the theme of my album right there. I see it.”
The beat was kind of dark already. It sounds beautiful and it got all these beautiful instruments in this shit, but still, it was super dark. It wasn’t nothing else to be on that shit but a sinister bad guy to me. I see it as a movie. This is what that beat called for and I just had to dig deep and come up with a good melody on that. That one I knocked out of the park.
“Blackest in the Room”? Let’s touch on that.
That was the Alchemist’s game. I had to get Alchemist on the album. Damn, I’m trying to figure out what I was watching that day when I came up with that concept. I think I was watching some gang documentary on Jeff Fort and then — I don’t know, the music just made me feel like I was in the twenties or some shit like that. One of them Duke Ellington big band rooms or something like that.
I just wanted to rap to make it fit. I think every song is like putting together a puzzle, so I just wanted to make the pieces go together. And especially with that one, because we intertwined two beats. So, Alchemist did his thing with that.
You have a track with Scarface, and you’re one of the very few people to get stuff from Scarface. What is it like working with him?
The thing with Face — me and Face got a good personal relationship. We like family. He’s like an uncle to me, so I love Face. So whatever project I’m working on, you could never not use a Face verse. That’s my favorite rapper, so that’s just how that rock.
As far as everybody else that rocks with me, all the features are pretty much organic. People that got respect and the respect is mutual, and that’s how it should be. You know what I mean? You don’t want to be chasing a rapper down for a feature and hoping a motherfucker fuck with you, and hoping that he supports the record and all of that. I ain’t got time for all that. Instead of dealing with rap politics and becoming features and shit, I’d rather just do a whole album by myself.
I was watching this Richard Pryor documentary, and his friends stated that he would always take his trauma and express it onstage as a form of escapism. For you, is it the stage, the studio, or do you find a place outside of that?
Shit, I ain’t got time to find another place. That’s all I got is the stage and the studio. So yeah, it all kind of comes out there. I can feel him on that, yeah. I feel how he feels.
I hope you’re taking time for yourself. In your interview with Spin, you said your three most important things right now are being a good father, a good boyfriend, and an asshole. How important is character and maturity to the overall growth of Freddie Gibbs, both the person and the artist?
I just think that, shit, I’m older now. I definitely can’t delve into the same things that I used to do. So, I think the growth — I think my kids kind of helped me grow up a little bit. If not for them, there ain’t no telling where I would be mentally. Like I said before, just being a good father and trying to soothe those relationships with the baby mothers and things of that nature, and just maintain it.
I think that right now, I just need to sit back and really, really pay attention to my mental health and take some time for myself. I feel like I haven’t had the time to sit down in the past 15, or 20 years trying to make it in the rap game. I feel like now, with this album, I got a little bit of breathing room.
What would you say is the biggest lesson you learned from creating this project overall?
I learned a lot about myself. I learned that it’s going to take a lot to break me. I’ve been through so much, and just to hear it, it’s damn near kind of eerie. But then, this album just really showed me how strong I was. As a man, as everything. It showed me how good of a rapper I am, and that I know how to pick my spots and do the right thing.
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