All killer, no filler. This is a storefront owner’s kind of promise, a salesman’s humble assurance of quality. It is also, incidentally, the title of a Sum 41 album. For Freddie Gibbs, Str8 Killa No Filla, as he’s titled both his newest free Internet mixtape and accompanying iTunes-only EP, refers to two things: 1) the quality of his blunts, and 2) the unwavering consistency of his output. To call the rapper “suspicious of frills” would be like observing that 50 Cent enjoys the occasional Internet beef. Gibbs has an incredibly narrow, focused vision of what “real hip-hop” sounds like—the 1990s South and West Coast versions, basically—and he replicates that style with ferocious, unswerving commitment.
Last year was big for Gibbs: He rode a pair of free mixtapes to rap-blog acclaim, a New Yorker profile, and a spot in the 2010 Pitchfork Music Festival. But recently, he’s shown some disheartening signs of becoming the latest in a long line of rappers—Wale, Saigon, Charles Hamilton—to be mightily confused by the potential of their Internet buzz. Shortly after the New Yorker piece surfaced, Gibbs appeared onstage, rapping every word of his “Murda on My Mind” with the issue in question held aloft in his left hand. The sight was not inspiring. And while Str8 Killa is every bit as consistent as his first two tapes, there’s a sense that Gibbs has hit his ceiling, both artistically and in what he can hope to accomplish without a record deal.
Part of the appeal of those first two tapes—The Miseducation of Freddie Gibbs and midwestgangstaboxframecadillacmuzik—was that, for all their “real hip-hop” references, they were rooted in a specific place: Gibbs’s hometown of Gary, Indiana. They featured work from local producers like Finger Roll, whose tracks held their own alongside beats by heavy-hitters Polow Da Don and Just Blaze. But the production on Str8 Killa, handled largely by the hilariously named Josh the Goon, isn’t as reliably trunk-rattling, and Freddie’s sense of himself has grown fuzzier. He’s teamed up with New York throwback-rap DJ Statik Selektah, and gotten guest spots from a spate of deeply uncompelling, scowling underground guys that run the gamut from veteran Planet Asia to new-jack Jay Rock. Gibbs still raps defiantly about his hometown, but the tape’s sound is a little anonymous.
He’s still a spectacular rapper, though, flipping his way between triple-time and half-time flows without so much as a stray breath. He never once sounds boxed in by his own rhyme schemes or comes off as unmusical, and he lingers on chewy consonants like heels sticking to blacktop: “It’s that Midwest murder on muthafuckas, must I remind ’em?”; “I’m yacked out and I’m geeked up/Stay cheefed up with my heat tucked”; “I just shipped a gang’a stanky to Cantigny, Illinois.” His lyrics are gangsta-rap clichés—jackers be lurking, geekers need serving, blades get chopped—reinvigorated by the force of his delivery.
At several points in this new mixtape, a song will stop dead and Statik Selektah will shout, “Y’all want the rest of this joint, you gotta cop it on iTunes! Get that Str8 Killa No Filla EP!” It’s a feeble pitch, but how else can Gibbs coerce anyone to actually pay for his music? He’s already ridden the Internet to an extraordinary amount of attention, but you have to wonder if his lane disappeared just as he cleared it. The niche-rap blogs have already moved on, and it’s unclear whether he’s found lifelong new fans or just bewitched a handful of curious onlookers. For a tidy metaphorical summation of this situation, look no further than the recent Pitchfork.tv video of Gibbs smoking weed with Best Coast’s Bethany Cosentino, her frozen smile suggesting she’s either high or deeply uncomfortable, or both. It’s a scene right out of a teen-sex comedy. These are Gibbs’s people now, whether he wants them or not, and whether or not they want him.