There was a fascinating article on The Nation recently that demonstrated just how sorry a state the music industry is in. It’s worth a read, but ultimately confirms the death of the record label, specifically the major ones. Hip-hop, perhaps more so than any other genre of music, became designed to build a talent up to ultimately be signed by a major label. Whether it was local radio stations in the 1980s, mixtapes in the 1990s, or the likes of Datpiff in the 2000s – the goal was always to land a fat cheque at the end that granted the artist a budget, with access to better producers and songwriters. Considering the technological advances allowing artists to self-release their music directly to fans, and even top-tier musicians like Madlib crafting classics on iPads, the traditional structure of a major label album release feels very outdated in today’s environment. The way listeners digest music has certainly changed since the rise of the Internet, but the fact this Freddie Gibbs album is touted as his major label debut feels laughable, considering he’s very familiar to hip-hop fans. Hell, you could argue he’s had some crossover success with his last few projects considering he regularly charts in the Billboard 200, with 2020’s “Alfredo” peaking at #15. That’s a popular rapper, and “Soul Sold Separately” being on Warner Records only boosted it four places higher in the chart (#11).

Chart performance isn’t what Freddie Gibbs is about, demonstrated by his distinct lack of hit singles. He’s an albums guy, although while this album is very good, it never hits the heights of “Pinata” or “Bandana”. Considering the variety of producers involved, the album maintains a level of cohesion that further confirms something Freddie rarely gets praised enough for – his adaptability. The machine-gun flow sounds at home over DJ Paul trunk-rattlers (“PYS”), smoked-out Alchemist (“Blackest in the Room”), or uplifting jazz courtesy of Madlib (“CIA”). Hit-Boy, Jake One, and Justice League are all reliable additions, and it all fits together nicely.

If there was a hit in Gibbs’ catalog, it’s 2019’s “Mic Check”, which he weaves into “CIA” – a paranoid commentary on the system stacked against the black man in the United States. As revealed at the end of the track, it’s not as deep as perhaps it could be, coming out of a humorous observation in a studio session. The beat by Madlib though is really quite delicious – he’s in a league of his own because it sticks out like a sore thumb.

Gibbs is known for collaborating on other artists’ projects but tends to keep his own albums to himself with an occasional guest. Here, he’s stacked a fifteen-track offering with famous rappers, lending it a retro feel akin to an early 2000s CD, yet the major label nature of this release ensures every rap fan is catered for. Offset and Freddie channel Bone Thugs on “Pain & Strife”, a headphone-testing trap track drenched in Autotune, that ultimately relies on its snappy hook for replay value, while Moneybagg Yo’s flow on “Too Much” is upstaged by Freddie’s airtight, machine-gun approach – he’s in a different league. That might be Freddie’s biggest flaw, in that he’s far superior to his braindead contemporaries, both in terms of charisma, and technical execution. It’s easy to take him for granted when he leans into more generic territory. A few of his performances do drop below par though, namely the Rick Ross collaboration “Lobster Omelette” which feels frantically delivered next to Ross’ effortless style of shiny storytelling.

The Anderson .Paak and Raekwon record “Feel No Pain” is essentially an Anderson .Paak song with a Freddie Gibbs verse on it. Granted, it’s very good, but it’s Anderson .Paak – what do you expect? There are just a bit too many guest features on here for me, whereby it doesn’t really feel like a Freddie Gibbs album. Numerous songs feature glorified skits bolted on to the end – it just all feels like too much record label involvement. Despite the hour-long run-time, Gibbs usually (and wisely) operates around the 3-minute mark with songs rarely needing that coveted third verse.

I’m probably being a negative Nigel, because there are some excellent moments on “$$$” and individual songs prove Gibbs is still very much in form. Little Brother being referenced on the Kelly Price-assisted “Couldn’t Be Done” is the icing on a very tasty cake courtesy of Super Miles & Swoope. Not many beats go harder than this – you’d expect The Game to have rapped on this in 2006 and that’s a good thing. Pusha T continues his infatuation with Coca-Cola on “Gold Rings”, which isn’t new territory for Gibbs either, which he explores further on “Grandma’s Stove”, a heartfelt, reflective moment with lines that tell their own stories. I guess the rap nerds will wonder whether the “had some deadly beef with some rappers, but that’s another chapter” refers to him being jumped by Griselda last year. Scarface closes out the album almost with a challenge to younger emcees to simply spit about the game, but to spit game themselves but it doesn’t fulfill the potential a Freddie Gibbs & Scarface moment really should.

“$oul $old $eparately” possesses the blockbuster big-budget aesthetic that comes with the major label pressure to succeed, but Freddie Gibbs has proven his strengths lie with one producer on albums with minimal features. This doesn’t negate that successful formula, so much as dilute it. If Freddie Gibbs can put out a good album and still leave me disappointed, we’re talking about one of the greats. Much like how Method Man’s 1998 sophomore album “Tical 2000: Judgment Day” contained individual moments of excellence, it had too much going on. Hearing Joe Rogan messaging Freddie Gibbs reminded me of that era, and while it might provide the mainstream acceptance the major label budget offers, and Gibbs himself may still crave, “$oul $old $eparately” as an album doesn’t quite match the very high standards he set with Madlib and Alchemist in previous years.

Freddie Gibbs :: Soul Sold Separately
7.5Overall Score