On Shadow of a Doubt, nostalgia and desperation coat some of these songs, making the pain of them seem realer, while also giving us new angles on common crime-rap tropes.
There was a moment there when Freddie Gibbs could have been taken for granted. His workman-like flow and consistency were things we started counting on and then, nonchalantly expecting. So Baby Face Killa came out -- strong and confident throughout -- we head-nodded in appreciation, and then went waiting for him to raise the impossibly high bar he'd already set.
Piñata, Gibbs's 2014 album with Madlib, changed that narrative a bit. Over Madlib's ever-shifting beats, Gibbs reminded us of the versatility of his rhythms and rhyme patterns. What was one workman-like now seemed almost playful, even if it still came off as deadly serious. It was an important record for Gibbs, a sign that he still had room to grow as a rapper, that there was versatility we had missed before, and that he was still capable of surprising us.
And maybe it's following Piñata that makes Shadow of a Doubt feel that much fresher. Make no mistake, it stands on its own as a solid collection, but it's as if the twists in its predecessors laid the groundwork for us to catch the nuance of this record. The album cover doesn't show Gibbs's face. It's obscured by darkness, something the covers of Pinata or Baby Face Killa don't do. On Shadow of a Doubt, Gibbs the man takes a backseat to his words, to the stories he's telling, to the past these songs get lost in.
It's no wonder, then, that the album starts with a song called "Rearview". It's, on one level, a classic boast tune, one where no other rapper can match up to Gibbs, where people are aping his style. But halfway through the rap game, the drug game, the government, pretty much everyone around Gibbs seems to be closing him in. "You don't know who to trust," he admits, with more than a hint of aggression. He's getting ready to push back, but he also feels weighted down. The beat, built (like several great tracks here) by Blair Norf, stomps darkly along, but the shadows here don't feel like they're cast by Gibbs and his prodigious talent, but rather they are the things obscuring him in darkness.
That darkness comes up in "Fuckin' Up the Count", but Gibbs also plays with all of that shadow. Usually, it's the past that casts it. Gibbs is one of our finest crime storytellers, and the details he leans on frame the story well. "Teacher said go get a job / I said where the scale at?" he asks more than once here, hinting at not only a young Gibbs's mindset, but also at a lack of options. The story is one of successfully working his way through the rap game, through the violence and danger of it all, but it's not the kind of don braggadocio we'd get from, say, a kingpin blowhard like Rick Ross.
In place of that bragging, we get something else from the 33-year-old Gibbs: nostalgia. The faint string sounds that waft along the beat on "Fuckin' Up the Count" almost feel sepia-toned. "Extradite" plays on a watery, distant sample of mid-'70s soul that melts into dream-like chimes. "Packages" plays like hard trap, but the faint whispering and piano keys make it sound like a song haunted by the past. In these moments, some of the most potent on the album, Gibbs seems lost in looking back, capturing the feeling and details perfectly, but there's a pang of heartache to the proceedings, not at what was done right or wrong, but at the passage of time, at how those roads impossibly led here.
When Gibbs isn't in that nostalgia, he's still not full-on flexing. Instead, the in-the-moment aggression is always tainting with desperation. The best example comes in late-album highlight "Freddie Gordy". The Gibbs in this song is trying to go legit, telling himself "that every time I touch the dope that it's gonna be my last flip, man." But you can feel the world around him closing in -- he can't get away from the drug life he's begun, he can't away from his own additions as he sells addition to others, he doesn't want his daughter to end up the same way. The way the words tumble out of Gibbs, the way they start to strain and choke, you feel it all piling on top of him. As that past bleeds into present, Gibbs feels every moment, and each moment feels like a weight stacked onto a tipping scale.
It's the sense of storytelling that makes the best parts of Shadow of a Doubt shine. The sense of nostalgia and desperation that coat some of these songs make the crime and pain of them seem realer, but they also give us new angles on common crime-rap tropes. There are a few moments in the middle of the record where more basic beats and themes -- like "Lately" and "Basketball Wives" -- deliver good when there could be great. But overall Gibbs has another great set on his hands, and he holds his own with some great guests, including solid turns by E-40 and Black Thought (who must be paying tribute to Killer Mike on that second verse). With Piñata and now Shadow of a Doubt, Gibbs isn't coming up anymore. He's here, which might be why he's looking over his shoulder at the path behind him.