Freddie Gibbs's ESGN album leaked yesterday after someone hacked into the computers of the project's distributor, Empire, while they were migrating to a securer network. ESGN was originally slated for a July 9th release. To combat the theft, Gibbs's camp released the album early, both as a streaming preview and an iTunes download. The circumstances of ESGN's introduction to the world might have been messed up, but the album has the Gary, Indiana-based Gibbs come good on his claim that it's his definitive body of work -- and he's done so by making an album that's a reminder of the appeal of gangsta rap that's never meant to trouble the pop world. To its virtue, ESGN is a brilliantly unfashionable album.
It didn't used to be this way. Back in late-2009, Gibbs was a rapper in vogue. He was profiled on the cover of the LA Weekly and, off the back of his Midwestgangstaboxframecadillacmuzik mixtape, received a glowing endorsement from The New Yorker. Before that he was involved with the Interscope label and management set-up, a situation which didn't pan out. This idea of a larger label looking to profit from Gibbs's commanding rhymes and relentless flow was revisited in 2011 when he signed to Young Jeezy's CTE World imprint. That also didn't work out and he left in acrimonious circumstances. Listening to ESGN it's not surprising that Gibbs bumped heads with Jeezy: His music doesn't pander to the marketing schtick of gangsta rap as an action-packed facade to sell records. He's not dabbling in the cartoonish world of studio gangstas. Instead, Gibbs has composed a set of songs that draw you down to his own eye-level; he's bringing you into the front lines of his own world and it can be an unapologetically grisly one. As Gibbs put it when I spoke to him recently: "The streets is home and the streets is grimy and the streets is cut-throat -- I’d say I saw two n****s getting murdered yesterday looking out the barbershop." This is that vignette through the barbershop window spread over 19 songs.
So instead of scrabbling around and calling in industry favors to pack the project with star names affixed to super-producer beats, Gibbs uses ESGN to assert his steely independence. The bulk of the guest raps come from the relatively unknown ranks of his crew (Hit Skrewface, G-Wiz, D-Edge, G.I. Fleezy and Big Kill). Beyond his close circle, the biggest rap assists come on "F.A.M.E." when Daz Dillinger and Spice 1 add on to the song. Daz and Spice are verified gangsta-rap icons, but the latter is still most widely associated with his turn on the Menace II Society soundtrack in 1993. "F.A.M.E." harks back to the spirit of that era, with Cardo's production on the song pegged around an ominous piano riff and an eerie, simmering drum pattern.
At its most convincing, ESGN sounds like a direct link back to the songs that presumably first caught Gibbs's ear as a fan. Tracks like "Eastside Moonwalker," "I Seen A Man Die," and "Real G Money" are a tribute to his devotion to the craft of gangsta rap. On a cursory listen ESGN can seem unforgiving and bleak, but that's part of its charm: It's a totally uncompromising album. These days, that deserves unflinchingly high praise.
Stream ESGN below: