Hip-hop producer Daniel Alan Manam a.k.a The Alchemist has a long and prolific career to his name. Since his start in the late ’90s, The Alchemist has been making beats for the hip-hop greats, working with Nas, Mobb Deep, Ghostface Killah, Mac Miller, and even getting signed to Shady Records in 2011 as Eminem’s official in-house producer. The L.A. native has been very active over the past decade, dropping project after project with a slew of artists from around the industry. This year in particular has been a monster for the Alchemist, having released two full-length albums, an EP, and gotten producer credits on other major releases. His latest album with Indiana-rapper Freddie Gibbs is one of 2020’s biggest hip-hop records so far. Here’s everything you need to know to get up to speed on one of the most happening artists in hip-hop today.
Back in 2012, The Alchemist dropped two noteworthy projects: an intricate 40-minute 30-track hip-hop tapestry made from samples of Russian music called Russian Roulette, and an album with NOLA rapper Curren$y called Covert Coup. It was on Covert Coup that we first got to hear Freddie Gibbs rap over an Alchemist beat, a collaboration which Gibbs says sharpened his skills and prepared him for his most critically acclaimed releases like Piñata and Bandana. Curren$y, Gibbs, and Alchemist went on to make a three-way collaborative album in 2018 called Fetti, which was very well-received by audiences and laid the foundations for 2020’s Alfredo. That same year the Alchemist released two EP’s: Lunch Meat and Bread. Both heavily featured the artists of Griselda, an East-coast hip-hop collective/independent record label formed by brothers Westside Gunn and Conway the Machine with cousin Benny the Butcher. In 2019 the Alchemist dropped three great EP’s: one with Action Bronson called Lamb Over Rice, a thematic, production-focused project called Yacht Rock 2 (my personal favorite of all of his EP’s) which features a baker’s dozen of rappers, and one with Boldy James called Boldface. Al had produced Boldy James’ first full album, My 1st Chemistry Set back in 2013, and went on to produce 2020’s The Price of Tea in China.
Fun Fact: Much of the original soundtrack heard in the blockbuster video game “Grand Theft Auto 5” was produced by the Alchemist.
2020 Credits and Features
So far in 2020, in addition to producing Eminem’s “Step Dad”, Roc Marciano’s “Saw”, and Jay Electronica’s “The Neverending Story” with Jay-Z, the Alchemist produced two tracks on Westside Gunn’s new album Pray for Paris. The new release was big for Griselda, debuting at 67 on the Billboard 200 and reaching 29 on the Current Album Sales. On top of all three Griselda men, the album features the musical stylings of Joey Bada$$, Roc Marciano, Boldy James, Freddie Gibbs, and Tyler, the Creator, who not only raps but also has producer credits on the penultimate track.
The first of the Alchemist-produced tracks on Pray for Paris is “$500 Ounces” which features Freddie Gibbs and Roc Marciano. In an interview with Complex, Gibbs says he wanted the track for his own album but was edged out by the Buffalo emcee. The instrumentals on “$500 Ounces” are classic Alchemist, filled with chopped samples and a soulful flair. The other Alchemist-produced track is “Claiborne Kick” with Boldy James. It’s a more ethereal track with a light touch and easy harmonies that float over the deep vocal effect of Boldy James and Gunn’s colorful ad-libs.
The Alchemist opened 2020 with Boldy James’ second full-length album, The Price of Tea in China. The production on this record is generally pretty dark with a couple of lighter spots peppered in in the form of “Surf & Turf” with Vince Staples and “Pinto”. The rest of the album ranges from melancholy like on “Grey October” and the album opener to straight up menacing like the eerie “Giant Slide” and the villainous “Speed Demon Freestyle”. Two definite highlights from this project are the dark coke-rap banger “S.N.O.R.T.” featuring Freddie Gibbs and the expertly chopped “Run-Ins”. Altogether the project is consistent and continuously interesting, boasting top-shelf production tailored to the deep slick flows of Boldy James. The two feed off each other, creating a project that is truly greater than the sum of its parts.
In late March, Alchemist released LULU, an EP with Griselda man Conway the Machine. Coming in at 23 minutes in length, LULU packs a lot of substance into its small package. The instrumentals are dramatic and cinematic throughout, elevating the Griselda template through clever samples that accentuate the themes of their music. A great example is the breathtaking sample on “The Contract” which sees Conway slowing up his flow to match the emphasis of the beat. Other highlights on LULU include “14 KI’s”, “Calvin”, and a very memorable feature from Schoolboy Q on “Shoot Sideways”. Conway’s EP is probably the Alchemist’s least impressive release of the year simply by nature of its company, its length, and its simplicity, but it’s still a tight, straightforward EP that’s certainly worth a listen for fans of both Al and Griselda.
The biggest drop of the year so far from the Alchemist is his collab with Freddie Gibbs, Alfredo – the title being a clever mashup of the two artists’ names. Gibbs is no stranger to collaborations with big-name producers, as he’s made two albums (Piñata and Bandana) with the legendary beatsmith Madlib, and has a third project (Montana) on the way.
Motherf*ckers like Al and Madlib, they make me better. If it wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t be as good of a rapper as I am. It’s like Michael Jordan when Phil Jackson brought the triangle offense in—he became a better player. He was scoring a lot before, but when they brought that sh*t in, he started winning championships. When I f*ck with Otis and Al, I feel like it was championship-level type rap. I got to rap the best. I’m competitive. I’m definitely not going to let nobody get on a song and rap better than me.Freddie Gibbs told Complex in an interview about Alfredo
That being said, Madlib and Alchemist have two very distinct production styles and Alfredo is a fresh album that sees Al and Freddie flush out their chemistry from 2018’s Fetti. The Alchemist commented on their artistic affinity saying it was surprisingly easy to make Alfredo. The instrumentals on the album are rich and varied while Freddie’s pen game and flow are as strong as ever. Al knows exactly when to go in and when to lay back and let Gibbs take over.
The album opens with “1985”, greeting us with a slick-n-thick 80’s rock guitar riff sample and a laid back but assertive flow from Gibbs. Then the pair go in on “God Is Perfect”, which features a harder piano-based instrumental and a more rhythmic flow from Gibbs. The next track, “Scottie Beam”, calls back to the first song the duo collaborated on called “Scottie Pippen” on Curren$y’s Covert Coup. The instrumental on “Scottie Beam” is lush and elegant, setting up the Rick Ross feature perfectly, and sees the velvety Florida rapper calling out the late great Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna after their tragic death in a helicopter accident earlier this year. “Look At Me” is probably the project’s weakest link with its lethargic beat and sparse verse. That’s not to say its a bad track, but it fades in comparison to the rest of the project. “Frank Lucas” is the hardest song on the album, with a menacing beat from Al that features an ominous ‘beep’ that propels the song forward. The track is named after a famous heroin dealer from Harlem who was the basis for the film American Gangster. The song also features Griselda rapper Benny the Butcher who comes through with a long and expertly-written verse.
The end of “Frank Lucas” leads into “Something to Rap About”, a definite highlight, featuring a long and pretty verse from Tyler, the Creator and a Tom Mischian jazz guitar sample. This midsection of the album made up of “Frank Lucas” and “Something to Rap About” is one of the strongest spots on the record. “Baby $hit” has a lofty instrumental where Gibbs has space to float over the top. “Babies & Fools” brings back the silky jazz guitar samples and another Griselda rapper, Conway lays down a relaxed verse. “Skinny Suge” continues the trend with a central jazz guitar riff as Gibbs delivers the most emotional and personal performance of the album. The album closer “All Glass” breaks the tension of the penultimate track with a bombastic and braggadocios cut to punctuate the project.
The comparison between Alfredo and the work of Freddie Gibbs and Madlib is inevitable as both duos feature Gibbs floating over a powerhouse producer’s beats. It’s impossible to say which one’s better as that is entirely subjective considering the outstanding quality of all three records, but they are certainly different. Madlib’s characteristic style of skits and short beat switches at the end of his songs make Madgibbs albums more punctuated, letting each track feel separated and more independent within the larger project. Tracks on Alfredo are often stitched together seamlessly, leading from one to the next smoothly so that the project feels cohesive and almost narrative, a trait the Alchemist best exemplifies on Yacht Rock 2. While both producers are keen on jazzy samples and lots of chopping, the Alchemist’s beats are highly polished while Madlib’s are rawer with an old-school flair. So far we’ve seen a lot more of Madgibbs than the Alfredo duo, but after this relea
Altogether Alfredo is a modern classic and another major addition to both artists’ discographies. Nearly every track lands and they all form a cohesive and thematically consistent whole. The album certainly makes a big impression on the state of hip-hop in 2020. We still have to see how the year plays out in terms of drops, and with Kendrick Lamar’s fifth album rumored to be near release, 2020’s hip-hop landscape is far from set in stone. But for the time being Alfredo and the Alchemist’s other 2020 releases have left a huge fingerprint on the medium, and have solidified the Alchemist as a name to keep an eye out for going forward.