Freddie Gibbs and Madlib shared equal billing as the artists behind Pinata, one of the standout hip-hop albums of the year so far. Though released in March, it is very likely to still be regarded at year’s end as a highlight of 2014. That equal billing is important. It’s the synthesis of Gibb’s tough, vivid street raps with Madlib’s ‘70s street-soul aesthetic that makes the album special.
Madlib’s work on Pinata seems a refining of the approach he took to some other recent collaborations. It’s like a less goofy, less frenetic version of the music for the 2010 Madlib/Guilty Simpson album OJ Simpson, for example. This music is more streamlined, more groove oriented, while working in the same milieu.
To hear the instrumentals is a more involving experience than you might expect. It’ll work both for new listeners and for those who’ve already played Pinata to death. Pinata Beats is a humble title for an album that can stand alone, as its own experience. It stands out among instrumental versions of non-instrumental hip-hop albums in that regard. As much as I love instrumental hip-hop, there are those moments with albums like this where you’re filling in the vocals in your own head. That doesn’t happen here, which is notable.
Listening to Pinata Beats you can hear the way the music was constructed as a platform for Gibbs to stand on. But even those stretches that are obviously missing an essential component don’t feel as if they are. They work in a different way.
Take, for example, “Harold’s”. On the original album, the album’s laidback groove loops around in the background while Gibbs rhymes fairly breathlessly, for him, not leaving a lot of space for us to be focusing on the music. We hear it, backing him up in an oddly sweet way while he declares, “fuck my enemies / what you looking for bitch / I got em.” The song’s about three moments, and Gibb’s vocals are constant through it.
Strip the vocals away, and the song instantly feels lighter, slower, more laid back. As the music loops, it also gains a meditative quality. This is a Sunday stroll through the streets, your mind on something else. Hearing it on its own is a bit of a revelation, though, as you realize the role that the more zen music was playing in the original; to temper, support, complement his intensity.
Another example, looked at in reverse. As an instrumental “Bomb” is a bit disorienting, at first UFO-like and then spy-movie-esque. The music is delicate but we’re progressing towards something unsettling. It resembles a movie score; in our brains we’re filling in the scene and perhaps even the plot. It never reaches any kind of climax, but just keeps the mystery spinning until it fades away. Put Freddie Gibbs and Raekwon back on it, by listening to the original, and the feeling isn’t that different, just more specific, as they give voice to drug-dealers realizing their end may be around any corner. The paranoia they express was there in the music already. So was the cinematic quality, which is given another level through Gibbs’ statement “life is like a movie / all I did was play my fuckin’ part.”
Each song can be tackled like this, or not. Pinata Beats may seem supplemental, a bonus for the original album’s diehard fans, but it’s much more utilitarian than that. Use it on its own, as a remarkable collection of visceral soundscapes flavored with the history of soul music yet taking on the feeling that they’re scoring movies both real and imagined. Or use it to analyze Pinata, to pick apart the album’s merits, how the music and vocals come together. Madlib fans can add it to their evidence of his role as one of the hip-hop innovators of our time.