As one of hip-hop’s most talented but mercurial producers, Madlib has always eschewed high-profile, fame-solidifying associations in favor of affiliations with hand-selected, lesser-known MCs, uncovering some welcome surprises (MF Doom on Madvillainy, Guilty Simpson on O.J. Simpson) and some unredeemable duds (J Dilla on Champion Sound). After completing Madlib Medicine Show—a three-year, 13-album stylistic hodgepodge of beats, samples, instrumentals, obscurities, and remixes—he returns to pet-project pairings with Freddie Gibbs, an Indiana dealer-turned-rapper who’s spent five years slowly building his reputation through noteworthy online releases. In recognizing Gibbs’ undeniably gifted flow, however, the album relegates Madlib farther from the spotlight than ever before. (Indeed, the title, Piñata, is the first of his recent collaborations that doesn’t somehow incorporate his name.)
Madlib’s production remains expectedly unexpected, pulling from a genre grab bag of psychedelic soul, antique funk, old-school rarities, blues pop, grimy drum-and-bass, and proggy breakdowns, interjected with occasional blaxploitation-flick sound bites. True to form, his beats and samples remain richly crafted but finely minced, spliced into irregularly paced rhythms that clearly challenge Gibbs’ comfort level. Luckily, Gibbs is a raw but technically sound rapper, and nails the tricky timing with only the occasional hiccup.
While packing in guest-spots by Raekwon, Mac Miller, Scarface, and Odd Future’s Earl Sweatshirt and Domo Genesis, the record’s somewhat repetitive hooks seem most concerned with staying out of the way of the mic work. Whatever disappointment hip-hop purists might feel about that, however, is largely allayed by Gibbs’ skilled delivery and straightforward, streetwise storytelling. Piñata may not be Madlib’s best personal handiwork, but it’s well tailored to suit his partner’s impressive rhyming abilities.