Rap powerhouse Freddie Gibbs: ‘I was always the weird kid – a lot of people don’t like that’ | Music

Freddie Gibbs tried therapy, but only lasted three sessions. The 40-year-old rapper would have had plenty to discuss: the toll of selling drugs to finance his early mixtapes. Dropping out of university. Swerving gang conflict. Losing his first record deal in 2006, then another in 2012. And – of which more later – being acquitted of sexual assault charges in 2016. But the real reason he couldn’t hack it?

“She was too cute,” he says, of the Italian therapist he briefly saw. “Like, I can’t be in here looking at this lady. I’m trying to get therapy!” He smiles but doesn’t laugh, committing to the joke. Now, he contends that “that shit wasn’t for me. I decided I had to keep doing my music instead, bruh.” Rap, he realised, helped him work through what was on his mind. “My life is an open book through the music,” he says, adding that he calls the world his therapist as a result.

The music is why we’re sitting in the sort of London hotel whose gleaming exterior you could mistake for that of a bank. Gibbs is reclining on a velvet banquette in the bar, sipping on a margarita. last week he released his fifth solo album, $oul $old $eparately, his first for a major label, Warner. But the albums are a fraction of his output. Since debuting in 2004 he has released 20 mixtapes and four collaborative albums, plus several EPs. In 2021, his album with producer the Alchemist, Alfredo, earned a Grammy nomination. Nearly two decades in, “I still feel like my career has so much further to go: like I could do this shit until I’m 70.”

$oul $old $eparately, a concept album based around the fictional $$$ Resort and Casino, marries highly personal lyrics with bassy production that dips momentarily into Afrobeats, R&B and trap. Gibbs is still a gangsta rapper – but this album lets Warner hedge its bets on a few streaming successes, while Gibbs gets to go wild on the concept. The album’s title comes from Education, a track on Bandana, Gibbs’ acclaimed 2019 collaboration with Madlib. “In the last line of the rap, I said: ‘Drugs for the free, soul sold separately,’” he says. “What I meant by that line – ‘Drugs for the free’ – was that, yeah, I was selling drugs and making money, but what was I really making in the process? Like, in exchange for my soul?”

On the album, Gibbs grapples with how he can “feel like I’ve lived two lives” – Freddie Gibbs, the critically acclaimed rapper, and Fredrick Tipton, the drug dealer done good. Fans of Gibbs already know his raps cut deep: whether in Gangsta Gibbs mode on a diss track, or thumping his chest as his Freddie Kane and Big Boss Rabbit aliases, his double-time bars land both punchlines and sucker punches. He’s a classic rapper’s rapper: when it comes to technique and versatility, he can take your breath away.

Growing up in Gary, Indiana, Gibbs watched his father lose a job as a police officer and subsequently struggle to find steady employment. “My mum was a hard-working woman,” he says. “She always held it down.” His dad, meanwhile, wanted to be a singer, once competing in a local talent contest with Michael Jackson – “Mike fucked him up,” Gibbs says, smiling. His father introduced him to a wide range of music, from soul and R&B – “James Brown, Jeffrey Osborne, the Temptations, Smokey Robinson, the Chi-Lites” – to Wu-Tang Clan, Geto Boys, Rakim and other rappers Gibbs’ mum didn’t want him playing. “I always had the love for music. But what made me wanna fucking try it? That’s a crazy leap.”

He was never, as he puts it, “the kid in school beating on the desk, freestyling. I never wanted to be a rapper at all.” He fell into it, hanging out with friends who were recording and self-releasing mixtapes on CDs in the early 2000s. After listening to them rap, he thought: “Hell, I could do that.”

It’s funny that someone as skilled as Gibbs could have shrugged his way into rap. His deep, gravelly voice earned him early comparisons to Tupac, and he switches flows with dizzying speed. In his 20s, he was signed, then dropped, by Interscope Records, then again by rapper Young Jeezy’s CTE label. He reckons he wasn’t actually ready for a major label that young. “I listen to my old shit and it makes me wanna throw up,” he jokes. “It’s crazy; 16 years ago I didn’t understand the business. I didn’t really deserve my spot yet – I got in too early.”

Now, he looks entirely at home. The day before we talk, he hosts a listening party for a smattering of radio and press people. He’s in showman mode, beaming and working the room in a powder-blue Lacoste sweatsuit and jewellery that glints under the lights of the tasteful bar we’re in. He talks us through a few songs. One moment, Gibbs jokes that he was “high as fuck” in Miami when making Pain and Strife with Migos rapper Offset, and in another he’s reflecting on being three generations away from sharecroppers and enslaved people. But he’s buoyant, sipping a fancy tequila sourced specially for his visit. Those major label perks.

For a time, it seemed Gibbs wouldn’t make it to the Grammys, or even continue rapping. In 2016, while on tour, he was accused of rape, and arrested in France. He spent two weeks in jail there before being extradited to Austria, where the rape was alleged to have occurred. “I always knew that I didn’t do it,” he says.

The Austrian authorities offered him a deal: plead guilty and you’ll get three years. Go to trial and you risk at least 10. “And I said: ‘Well, I’m gonna get 10.’ It wasn’t even a question for me. I never even gave this girl a hug or a high-five.” He was eventually acquitted. “I wouldn’t wish jail on anybody – especially not those shitty, stupid charges – not on my worst enemy,” he says. “But that shit really made me stronger in this game.”

Gibbs says that he “prayed on it, and moved past it”. Austria’s not on his list of places to voluntarily return to any time soon, though. “I’ll never go back – racist-ass country. They’d have to give me $500m to go back to that motherfucker. Fuck Austria, fuck Vienna.” He laughs darkly.

Gibbs (on left) with Madlib, with whom he collaborated on Bandana in 2019.
Gibbs with Madlib, with whom he collaborated on Bandana in 2019. Photograph: icon/Nick Walker

At the time, Gibbs was engaged, to the actor Erica Dickerson, the daughter of ex-NFL star Eric Dickerson and Rea Ann Silva, the CEO of a beauty company, but their relationship didn’t survive: “Even when I got acquitted, she felt standoffish when I got home.” Nontheless, he says, “I love her to this day”: the pair also have a daughter together. At the listening party Gibbs is with a new partner, coaxing her into his lap on the small stage before introducing her favourite song, the Three 6 Mafia-inspired PYS.

While Gibbs is the toast of rap connoisseurs, he is still not mainstream famous. He is blunt, silly and borderline offensive, both on the mic and on social media. “I know a lot of people say shit about me, that I’m too confrontational an individual. I’m controversial – I’ve got that stigma on me,” he says. “But I’m gonna keep it real: that competitiveness, that controversy is what drove me out of Gary.”

It has become harder for rappers to stay relevant now that the genre has become so huge. Gibbs isn’t fussed; he won’t listen to people who say he needs to make chart hits or commercial-sounding rap. “Really, to be quite honest, I sometimes feel like I’m not even in the rap game. I’ve got my own lane.” He wants to be seen as the best – and for $oul $old $eparately to be considered an album of the year. “I feel like I’m one of the most versatile artists of all time,” he says. “I might do a song with Rick Ross today then next you might see me on stage with Gorillaz. I always was the weird kid who stood out.” A lot of people don’t like that, he adds. But he won’t stop doing what he does. “I never adhere to any rules of rap.” He pauses. “I can do anything.”

$oul $old $eparately is out now on Warner.