The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Rapper Freddie Gibbs heats up the Fillmore Silver Spring with virtuosic craft

Rapper Freddie Gibbs performs at the Fillmore Silver Spring on Nov. 22. (Jovell)
Placeholder while article actions load

The Fillmore Silver Spring was packed Friday night, the air conditioned to “frigid” and sweet with smoke. But the capacity crowd warmed right up just before 10, when Freddie Gibbs took the stage, head-to-toe in an equally cold Adidas tracksuit.

The 37-year-old rapper opened his set with a long verse that found him reminiscing about his circuitous path from drug dealer to headliner of sold-out shows. Born and raised in Gary, Ind., but based in Los Angeles, Gibbs has plenty of stories to tell. From street hustler to mix-tape rapper to major-label dropout to a spot on “XXL’s” formerly tastemaking Freshman list, Gibbs had an entire career before 30, after which he hit a creative peak on a pair of albums produced by crate-digger nonpareil Madlib.

The reclusive producer wasn’t at the show on Friday (despite briefly being advertised as such) but the living legend loomed large, as Gibbs performed a dozen of their collaborations. Madlib, known for his groundbreaking efforts with J Dilla and MF Doom and his seemingly bottomless beat collection, provides the perfect accompaniment to Gibbs’ vocal precision. The producer zigs with a dusty funk sample that plucks long-forgotten strings or blows tarnished horns, while the rapper zags with a polysyllabic vocal attack that packs in punchlines and internal rhyme.

The precision doesn’t stop at the record’s edge. In concert, Gibbs rapped like he was being paid by the syllable, as he flexed his verbal dexterity and ability to go a cappella or ratchet up the speed. The audience, hungry for this type of lyrically lush drug rap, ate it up, nodding their heads and doing their best to rap along.

Gibbs has always been a technically gifted rapper, and after a while, that tag seemed to damn him with faint praise. But thanks to the musicality of Madlib’s beatcraft, Gibbs has embraced melody and even a half-sung hook here and there, like on “Crime Pays” and “Gat Damn.”

He’s also thinking bigger these days, putting drug game realities into larger context without getting bogged down in political science. A standout verse on Friday mixed hustler talk with references to Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), the “reality star” in the Oval Office and what black people got instead of 40 acres and a mule. That’s how Gibbs ends up with an eye-popping lyric such as “Vladimir banana clip, move with Russian collusion shooters.”

Gibbs plied his virtuosic craft for more than an hour, and he did it despite a tour DJ with an itchy trigger finger on the gunshot sound effects, which Gibbs used as an opportunity to roast him. Clearly, though, Gibbs is better off with fake gun noises than being on either side of one.