A rapper drops his first mixtape and builds a cult following off of a positive Pitchfork review. He steadily expands that fan base, earning critical acclaim along the way. But then, something happens. He gets shot at, he goes to jail or some combination of the two.
This story could apply to countless artists from any point in hip-hop history, and Freddie Gibbs is one of them.
Gibbs — the 34-year-old who would be the biggest cultural export of Gary, Indiana, if the Jackson family hadn’t already taken that title — released his third solo album March 31. The album, titled “You Only Live 2wice,” is Gibbs’ first project since his June arrest for allegedly drugging and sexually assaulting a woman during a 2015 tour stop in Austria. The woman initially accused Gibbs’ bodyguard but included Gibbs nearly a year later after saying she had a flashback to the incident.
By August, Gibbs was out on bail. A month later, he was acquitted of all charges. That’s all the public information about Gibbs’ case available. None of the evidence came out, the woman’s identity remains anonymous and Gibbs’ only statement on the matter comes during “YOL2’s” first single, “Crushed Glass.”
“I just beat a rape case, groupie b***h I never f****d / Trying to give me 10 for some p***y that I never touched,” Gibbs raps.
Full disclosure: Gibbs has been a contender for my favorite rapper since my first year of high school. I have memories of sitting in school parking lots with friends and blasting his music from my terrible cell phone speaker, and I had a two-year stretch of listening to at least one song from his Madlib-produced album, “Pinata,” every day. My streak ended when the allegations against him emerged, but many others didn’t miss a step.
I’m not usually one to romanticize my relationships with celebrities, but Gibbs had been an exception. I’d watched him go from relatively unknown to featured on the cover of XXL Magazine’s 2010 “Freshmen” edition, at which point he says he was still stealing air conditioners in order to feed himself. Gibbs improved with every project, and I was right there repping him the entire way. “Pinata” is a classic, and, as instantly classic albums often do, a whole new fanbase joined behind him. I was legitimately proud of a man I had never met because I knew how hard his grind had been.
The arrest hit me hard on a personal level I didn’t expect — especially after seeing Gibbs in concert for the first time only a month beforehand. Gibbs has a criminal past he references without any trace of pride, but violence against women was not part of it. Though Gibbs’ music still references misogynistic tropes, his use of them falls on the lighter end of gangsta rap’s admittedly flawed standards.
At the time of the arrest, he had just celebrated his daughter’s first birthday and recently proposed to her mother. His social media presence indicated he had fully settled into life as a family man, though most of that material has since disappeared as part of Gibbs’ post-arrest reboot.
As I heard more baseless speculation about the arrest, I found myself dangerously close to the thought pattern keeping so many sexual assault survivors silent and so much justice unserved:
“He just seems like such a good guy.”
On some level, my fandom seemed like a type of evidence that Gibbs was innocent. I fully understood the possibility that he was guilty, but the allegations came so suddenly, so without warning, that it made them feel impossible.
It didn’t help that I would go online and immediately see people talking in circles, concluding that there was no evidence of the assault happening. They made this conclusion even though no other information — other than his arrest — has even been released. The internet’s knee-jerk reaction was to either immediately support Gibbs or immediately retreat into the stereotypical “What do you expect from a former criminal?” stance.
You’re supposed to be innocent until proven guilty, but the reaction to Gibbs’ arrest was something more. It was rationalizing. It was denial. But most of all, it was silencing a sexual assault survivor by implying that she couldn’t possibly be telling the truth. That she couldn’t possibly have been assaulted by “a good guy.”
Ultimately, the Austrian judge handling Gibbs’ case dismissed it for lack of evidence. Legally speaking, Gibbs is innocent. At the same time, I can’t dismiss the initial reaction of many of his fans, because this is a recurring problem in our culture — especially when it comes to hip-hop.
Take Tupac Shakur as an example. It’s far from controversial to call Shakur one of the best rappers ever, if not the greatest. Shakur spent most of 1995 in jail for participating in an alleged sexual assault involving his entourage. Despite facing nearly five years in jail, he posted bail after nine months and released his classic double album “All Eyez on Me” the following February. It would eventually become one of just eight rap albums ever to go diamond.
The sexual assault often gets left out of Shakur’s legend, notable only as background info, as the catalyst for his imprisonment and for his resurrection as the lyrical god of G-funk.
The same thing is happening now with the latest trap breakout, Kodak Black. If you expand focus to include any history of violence against women, the list becomes far too long to compile and includes even bigger names.
In many of these situations, the male rapper gets a short jail sentence or none at all. He goes on to create an amazing piece of art, and we collectively agree to start focusing on that instead of the “old news.”
We too often accept a person’s artistry as compensation for personal failings. A great discography may have improved upon or become the background music to your life — but that performer is still capable of ruining someone else’s life, and they may have already done so.
As fans, we don’t truly know these rappers any better than we know their anonymous victims, but it can feel like we do. What we have to remember is that sexual assault, and misogyny in general, continues because people brush it off on a case-by-case basis. We take the tarnishing of one person’s reputation as an attack on the entire rap culture and, in defense of that culture, make baseless excuses for why one particular person couldn’t have possibly done “something like that.” The group of supposedly infallible people slowly grows until we finally become skeptical of any sexual assault allegation.
Gibbs is, I think, innocent. I hope he was rightfully acquitted and if that’s the case, he shouldn’t have to spend his entire life answering for a false charge. But without evidence, I don’t really know whether that’s the case because I wasn’t in the courtroom. I certainly don’t know the situation well enough to claim that someone 4,000 miles away lied.
How much I like Gibbs as a rapper is irrelevant to his guilt or innocence, as is the cuteness of Snapchat stories featuring him and his daughter.
“You Only Live 2wice” is a solid Gibbs project with a very good second half. Artistically, the biggest knock against Gibbs’ performance might be that he hasn’t developed enough since his last album, 2015’s “Shadow of a Doubt.”
Still, I’d be lying if I said I could listen to the album without constantly thinking of the sexual assault allegations. Gibbs just doesn’t affect me the same way he used to. But that’s probably how it should be.