4/5 stars

At first glance, Freddie Gibbs and Madlib may seem like an unlikely pairing. From Gary, Indiana, Gibbs seems to have no shortage of tough lines about his rough past. Madlib, on the other hand, has a history of producing introspective beats with likeminded artists such as J Dilla and MF DOOM. Although the two come from different backgrounds, as Gibbs raps about his street persona over Madlib’s dark, unconventional production, it becomes apparent that they share a fierce sense of independence. As a result, their new album, "Piñata," sounds more like a dialogue between the two artists than a straightforward, collaborative message.

The first half of the album features a lot of funk and Motown samples from back in the day. This production is well-suited for Gibbs’s cool, confident delivery. Still, Madlib keeps his presence known with film dialogue samples and artsy pitch modulations. Danny Brown and Raekwon are welcome features in this part of the album as they give a break from Gibbs’s technically proficient, yet somewhat cliché, street rap voice.

The second part of the album begins with ‘Robes.' It features more jazz-influenced, soulful samples and a lighter attitude. The end of the tracks have longer, goofier skits and sometimes even some casual dialogue between the artists. There are numerous other rappers featured, including Earl Sweatshirt, Domo Genesis, Ab-Soul and Mac Miller. Earl’s verse contrasts with the other macho, confrontational raps on the album as he reflects on some of his vulnerabilities and insecurities. Mac Miller provides an entertaining closing to the last song while rapping about “reading Emerson novels” and “eating some Belgian waffles” in a more nasally voice than his usual lazy drawl.

Madlib’s production throughout the album keeps the songs interesting and original. 'Real' definitely shows this better than any other track on the album. While the beat is creative enough to be interesting by itself, Madlib also speeds up the track at certain points. The effect is unsettling, but it does not seem contrived. Also, for Gibbs, it’s almost impossible to stay exactly on rhythm, so when the track speeds up, he falls a bit behind the beat.

Still, the album is lyrically lacking. Gibbs’s verses do not stray far from being violent and getting high, and as a result, many of the featured rappers seem like they would be out of place for divulging more interesting subjects. Also, Gibbs’s tone does not vary much throughout the album. At times, he sounds like a rhythmic drone and more of a contribution to Madlib’s beats than vice versa.

Gibbs seems determined to be the self-proclaimed street prophet, but Madlib’s flairs of quirk and playfulness throughout the album hint at something else. It’s as if he’s telling Freddie to calm down because things are not as serious or grim as they seem. Gibbs realizes this in the last track, as the album closes with him joking and singing a cappella with his session mates’ laughter in the background.