“Are y’all ready for Freddie Gibbs?” asks a voice on stage, before the rapper appears above a luminous sea of phones. He hits the ground running, with a rapid-fire flow that starts an audience chant of “Freddie! Freddie!”
The 39-year-old from Gary, Indiana, put in the hard yards to get to medium-sized venues and the US Top 20 (with the album Alfredo in 2020), self-releasing mixtapes until finally getting signed. Nine albums in (some with collaborators such as Madlib and the Alchemist), the dishonourably discharged former US soldier (he was caught smoking marijuana) has a reputation for gruffly hard-hitting lyrics and gangsta rap stylings over imaginative beats. A charismatic performer – who resembles the late Tupac Shakur – he has tasted the “darker paths” he raps about, including a drive-by shooting from which he escaped unharmed. His gruff, breathless delivery is most startling when the music stops and his words hurtle undiluted from the stage.
In the absence of Madlib, DJ/rapper Ralph supplies soulful laptop backing and vocals, and functions as the hapless butt of Gibbs’s mockery. “Turn his mic off!” the rapper jokes, the banter offering a lighter contrast to the material. The rapper smiles with delight as he sees a topless fan has his name tattooed across his back, although a promise to “get you up here later” goes unfulfilled. Gibbs’s constant yells of “fuck police” play well with a young, mostly male audience but get wearying, and even in the context of hip-hop storytelling there are a lot of “bitches” in the lyrics. Gangsta rap faded after the 90s yet the lives remain, and Gibbs is unreconstructed but real. It is hard to deny the bleak power of Deeper (man gets out of jail to find his girlfriend pregnant), couplets such as “The revolution is the genocide / Yeah, my execution might be televised”, or the killer tunes of Thuggin’ and Gang Signs. Gibbs’s refusal to comply with rap’s shift into aspiration or introspection makes huge crossover success unlikely, but with the house chanting his name, he seems entirely happy where he is.
At the Roundhouse, London, on 1 April and Victoria Park, London, on 27 August. Details at freddiegibbs.com.