For Freddie Gibbs, the November election wasn’t the low point of 2016. In June of that year, he was arrested in France, then extradited to Austria and charged with rape with a potential 10 year prison sentence. Though he was found not guilty in September, it was a Pyrrhic victory. His months in foreign jails had come at the expense of his European tour, his reputation, his family and, necessarily, his freedom. You Only Live 2wice is his first album since being released and it is entirely defined by his imprisonment.
Gibbs maintains his innocence (“Crushed Glass”), but the album’s mood is overwhelmingly penitent. The 34-year-old rapper repeatedly apologizes to his daughter and his fiancé, and his scattered tales of street life have a clear moral bent (“Stay smooth, stay solid, nigga/these niggas will put your name in everything but a prayer/Amen,” he says on “20 Karat Jesus”).
The alleged crime is only mentioned obliquely, but through its elision it becomes a kind of omni-crime that encompasses all the wrongs Gibbs has ever committed: in the streets, in relationships and in fatherhood. “Black as hell, but rap got me thinking I need a foreign bitch/Take my black queens for granted, got me ignoring them,” he raps on “Alexys,” a coded apology. “Beat the DEA and the task, now I’m on my ass,” he says on “Crushed Glass,” interpreting his jail time as delayed retribution for past sins.
The way Gibbs narrows in on his experience of the allegations and their aftermath can feel uncomfortably evasive, to the point of shading the entire ordeal as a farce (“I just beat a rape case, groupie bitch I never fucked/Trying to give me 10 for some pussy that I never touched” he raps on “Crushed Glass”). But it perhaps helps that he also doesn’t position himself as much of a martyr.
Despite the album’s artwork, which features Gibbs as a newly risen Christ, he presents his experience as more of a muted parable than a grand testament. “Some niggas take the trip I took but they don’t get to leave,” he says simply on “Andrea.” A clip from Adult Swim’s Black Jesus bookends opener “20 Karat Jesus,” and it ostensibly mirrors the album’s cover art, but the message is actually reversed. In Gibbs’ gospel, Jesus is a god who dies and is reborn as a man. “Jesus is your homeboy,” Black Jesus preaches, relinquishing his authority.
He raps from a very human level, celebrating the quieter joys of freedom. The soulful “Phone Lit,” centers around a deferred romance, but it’s ultimately about being wanted in the simplest way, seeing a screen light up and knowing, definitively, that somebody is thinking of you. He spends most of “Homesick” distancing himself from disloyal homies (he even implies that he might have taken the charge in defense of a friend, which implies the victim really was raped…). But the song’s centerpiece is the story of Gibbs’s fiancé traveling to deliver him books in English because the jail library only had books in German. Every detail in this second life is to be cherished.
Gibbs’ greatest celebration of freedom is his rapping. He’s always had a bit of a power-tool approach to rapping, zeroing in on counter-rhythms and replicating them with mechanic precision. But here he alters his flows almost subconsciously, his words tumbling out at different speeds just for the sheer thrill. “Andrea” and “20 Karat Jesus” have sequences where the words just cannot fit within the note, but Gibbs remains completely at ease, determined to keep the stream flowing, obstacles be damned.
For many people, enjoying this record will probably depend upon the rapper’s performance of penance. The album certainly invites that kind of judgment (presumably in a way that is partial to Gibbs), but an alternative is to consider how totalizing freedom becomes once you’ve lived without it. Gibbs lost it for four months, and every line on this album is haunted by that loss. Some sentences never end.