The pop charts have been a dangerous place for much of the past two decades. When N.W.A's Efil4zaggin hit number one on the Billboard 200 in 1991, it established gangsta rap as a viable commercial product—and in the music's majority white and middle-class audience, it ignited a seemingly insatiable appetite for vivid lyrical portrayals of black men working in the violence-wracked crack trade. "Gangsta" soon became hip-hop's default pose as far as mainstream culture was concerned, and the charts were full of men with reputed gang connections and allegedly itchy trigger fingers.
Twenty-two years later, the trend finally seems to be winding down. Jay-Z has had a major part in this by popularizing the notion that music-industry success can be a way to transcend the bloody crack-game lifestyle rather than simply elevate it to a bigger stage, and Kanye all but finished the job when he became one of the biggest rap stars in the world without bothering to obscure his solidly middle-class background. Rappers on the charts today—Drake, A$AP Rocky, 2Chainz—talk about money, molly, women, and designer clothes, and barely mention guns and crack.
It seems that even gangsta rappers are over gangsta rap. Lil Wayne, who for years presented himself as a coke-slinging thug, raps almost exclusively about party drugs and sex these days. Chief Keef, whose popularity has been attributed by some critics to his fans' morbid obsession with black-on-black violence, has hinted that his next album will ditch the street-level perspective. Even Pusha T, whose group Clipse was for years roundly criticized for its single-minded lyrical obsession with selling cocaine, is now shooting artsy music videos in Paris and complaining about subpar private air service.
Gangsta rap still has an audience, but it's moving underground to the mixtape circuit, where rappers big and small release music for free through digital platforms such as DatPiff and LiveMixTapes—and where they can escape the pressure to appeal to mainstream sensibilities that's part and parcel of putting out music on major labels. Gangsta rap thrives in this environment, which is often hospitable only to the most hardcore hip-hop fans. Crack-obsessed rappers who are only marginal figures in the mainstream (including Young Jeezy, whose recent radio hit "R.I.P." originated on his mixtape It's tha World) are superstars here, and rappers nobody has heard of in the pop world (such as Atlanta's Alley Boy, whose new mixtape, War Cry, is one of the darkest records of the year) are major movers.
Freddie Gibbs, a native of Gary, Indiana, who now lives in Los Angeles, has released ten mixtapes since 2004, and his first "official" full-length, last month's ESGN, is aimed directly at that same mixtape audience. When Gibbs signed a production deal with Interscope in 2007 (only to be dropped the same year), he was considerably more gangsta than the average rapper. Judging by the material from his brief major-label stint that later turned up on mixtapes, he was completely uninterested in projecting a radio-friendly image—in fact the only thing he really seemed to want to get across was an unflinching reflection of the blighted streets of Gary. He prefers brutally sparse, punishingly hard beats, and he has the on-mike presence of a guard dog straining at its chain.
Gibbs remains defiantly thugged-out on ESGN, an album that exudes felonious intent with every beat. Sometimes breathtaking in its anticommercialism, it's an enormous middle finger raised to the very concept of crossover success, especially if getting it requires emulating Drake in any way. The lead single, "One Eighty Seven," which Gibbs has described in an interview with XXL magazine as "straight for the clubs," is menacing, bass-heavy, and minimalist, combining horror-movie-soundtrack bells and raps about casually murdering people—at most clubs I know, it would scare the shit out of people.
In the same XXL interview, Gibbs declares, "Michael Jackson is dead, so I gotta pick up the torch and run with it for my city." At first that seems like a ludicrous claim, but it makes sense if you're familiar with Gary and its history. Jackson began his career as the youthful face of a city that was still hopeful despite its decline, and Gibbs represents the same city once it's reached the point of total collapse. The rap world is having a roaring time, but you'd be hard pressed to find any evidence of that in this hollowed-out place, where the people seem outnumbered by abandoned buildings.
And though he might not be on Jackson's level, Gibbs is ferociously talented. With the help of a handful of producers, including in-house talent from his ESGN label (Chicagoan Lord Zedd and Superville from Cambridge, Ontario), he's crafting a new aesthetic for gangsta rap that feels like a leaner, more evolved version of the "trap" sound that's dominated the form for years. It's frequently dazzling in combination with his flow, whose cadence shifts seamlessly from the slo-mo Houston style to Tupac's melodic bark to the midwestern speed rap of Bone Thugs-N-Harmony and Twista.
With gangsta rap so out of fashion it seems unlikely that ESGN is going to attract many listeners, which is a shame. There are moments on the album that make it feel like his only real competition is rap's superelite—the ones currently spending more time talking about their modern-art collections than their street cred. In a thoroughly ironic reversal, it's gangsta rap that's now confined to the underground, while rappers big-upping Basquiat and criticizing America's for-profit prison system hog the pop charts.
It's tempting to wonder how ESGN would've performed if it were released when Gibbs was signed to Interscope and listeners were somewhat more receptive to uncompromisingly hard rap music. But that's a waste of time, and not just because it can't happen. ESGN is very much a record of this moment—it's not only keeping the gangsta sound alive but pushing it into the future. Freddie Gibbs is far from the only person left making undiluted gangsta rap, but even if he were, the style would be in good hands.