Freddie Gibbs may have flat-lined gangsta rap. As one of the most hyped up-and-comers, the Indiana native has amassed a publicity portfolio that includes magazine covers, plaudits from The New Yorker, substantial blog buzz, and a spot headlining the Pitchfork Music Festival — all without releasing an album. But although he seemed about to take his place alongside modern gangsta-rap kings like Snoop Dogg and 50 Cent, his career seems to be playing out on a smaller scale. His latest EP, "Str8 Killa," was released on Decon, a small indie label. And where his forefathers advanced gangsta rap by sensationalizing it, Gibbs' music suggests the genre has nowhere new to go.
At its best, gangsta rap thrills and traumatizes listeners by presenting an uncut look at the grittier side of urban life: drive-by shootings, drug dealing, and living in an environment where gang members have more power than the police. Gibbs' latest mixtape embraces these ideas. On "Rep 2 tha Fullest," he raps, "I represent it to the fullest/Any given day can die by the bullet." But Gibbs differs from the genre's breakout superstars by presenting violence and the idea of constant risk without somehow giving a metaphorical middle finger to the world.
An air of attitude and rebellion was vital in elevating gangsta rap's biggest names. In the '80s, Ice-T campaigned for freedom of speech, rallying against Tipper Gore's calls for explicit-lyrics warnings on records. Along with popularizing the use of the N-word, N.W.A. received a letter from the FBI after releasing "Fuck tha Police" — an act the group quickly announced to the world, adding to its infamy. Alongside a gangly rapper named Snoop Doggy Dogg, Dr. Dre reinvented himself as a pro-weed gangsta on The Chronic. Before his murder made him a martyr, 2Pac instigated a Thug Life movement, complete with a "Code of Thug Life." (The first commandment mandated, "All new jacks to the game must know: a) He's going to get rich. b) He's going to jail. c) He's going to die.") In 2003, 50 Cent turned himself into a walking symbol of violence, rapping about having been shot nine times during a drug war.
In each case, the controversial extramusical angles add menace, intensity, and intrigue to an artist's image — and increase their record sales. The stories become bigger than the songs. The very idea of gangsta rap is illicit — it's music to hide from your parents. But Gibbs' music has none of this forbidden feeling.
As a rapper, he is accomplished and pliable, as comfortable flowing double-time over Southern-styled beats as he is embracing soulful productions like "Crushin' Feelins" and "The Ghetto," both off his latest mixtape. But good rapping alone has never been enough to catapult an artist into the mainstream: If it was, Scarface, with his intricate gangsta narratives, would find his image on more suburban bedroom walls than 2Pac has.
Further hindering Gibbs' cause is contemporary fans' tolerance of gangsta rap's vernacular: In 1988, Ice Cube's opening couplet on "Fuck tha Police" shocked people into listening, but Gibbs' "National Anthem (Fuck the World)" simply sounds like any other rap song you've heard on the radio lately. The chorus has him hollering about "The motherfuckin' haters [who] keep my name in the game," which comes across as clichéd, not rebellious. However tightly Gibbs raps, when he addresses drugs and violence, he's talking about topics that have been stripped of their shock value.
Gibbs says he wants people to appreciate him as "a deep thinker and not just see the gangsta rap tag on the surface." It's an admirable stance, but unlikely to turn the now-indie MC into a towering presence in gangsta rap, let alone pop culture. Until he conjures up a way of reigniting gangsta rap's provocative side, Gibbs is driving the subgenre toward moribundity.