Freeway's Free at Last: A Preview

free_at_last_cvr.jpgToo many beards in the building

I didn't see a single person at last night's Freeway listening session scribbling in a notepad. It wasn't a critics' party. Rather than the expensively lit studios or label conference-rooms where these things usually take place, Freeway held his session at S.O.B.'s, the one club in Manhattan where chaos dependably reigns (at least at their rap-related events; I can't speak to their world-music shows). And yeah, last night was chaos again. One of the weird byproducts of rap's current fixation on hustle is the way nobody in the tri-state area seems content to be a fan anymore. When you show up to something like this, everyone is trying to push something: a mixtape, a clothing label, a website. Maybe one in every five guests last night toted a massive camera, so I'm looking forward to lurking around in the corner of the screen on a few upcoming mixtape DVDs that I won't watch. People kept handing me glossy cardboard fliers, one of which was a flier for a flier company. (I'm not kidding. It says "Got Fliers?," and it advertises 36-hour turnaround and nationwide shipping.) The only places to sit down were roped-off empty-tables, and the club's security goons wouldn't let anyone near them. The door guys had about five guest-lists, all of which apparently had to be consulted before they could let anyone in. The people stuck outside looked pissed, but the people inside mostly didn't look especially happy or relieved. The whole scene reminds me of an old State Property profile in XXL where the writer describes meeting (I think) Young Neef's tour manager before noting that Neef had no impending tour plans.

A room like that, where everyone is madly doing everything possible to network their way above everyone else, makes a perfect environment for Freeway. When you're surrounded by a struggling mob like that, the way to stand out is to be louder and harder and fiercer than everyone else, and Freeway remains one of the loudest, fiercest, hardest rappers working. Whenever he touches a microphone, he raps like the devil's chasing him, like the only way he can stay alive is to project every last iota of energy into his voice. At Jay-Z shows, he's the only frequent guest who always threatens to blow Jay off the stage, at least during his allotted five minutes, if only because he seems totally incapable of playing the background. Philadelphia Freeway, his first album, was a strong record, but it could've been a lot stronger without the clueless cameos from Nelly and Snoop Dogg and Mariah Carey. Even when he's rapping about sex or partying, Free's voice comes suffused with an all-consuming desperation, and so he always sounds like he's from another planet whenever he shares track-space with a non-Jay pop star. (Jay, always canny, knows how to make Free's young-lion ferocity work as a foil to his own world-weary assurance.) Free at Last is the long-delayed sophomore album, and as it played over the club speakers last night, Free kept his mic clutched tight, excitedly playing hypeman to his own recorded voice, screaming along with himself, wailing words he'd already wailed in the studio. Watching Freeway loosely rapping along with his own recorded tracks, it must be said, is more exciting than watching most rappers performing actual shows. He closes his eyes, throws his head back, and lets loose with one of those stressed, elongated "yeaaah!" roars, and it's awesome. A few songs into the session, Beanie Sigel wandered into the club, and Free spent most of the night on the floor in front of the stage, huddled into a tight circle with Beans and a few hangers-on, everyone bobbing heads and listening intently, Free still rapping along with himself. Once the album ended, Free brought Beanie to the stage and wanted to do "Roc the Mic." Beanie, who had to be torn away from a conversation, perfunctorily ran through his verse and stepped offstage as quickly as he could, but Free kept rapping like his life depended on it. He has no off-switch.

Judging by my one imperfect listen in a room full of people who were too busy networking to shut up, Free at Last is an album that capitalizes on that constant hunger. The album is being billed as an unprecedented back-room collaboration between its two co-executive producers, Jay and 50 Cent, but 50's presence remains thankfully minimal. He shows up only once, to sing the chorus on the album's weakest track (the "for the ladies" one, naturally), and he and his henchmen never spit a single verse. Likewise, Jay only gets one quick appearance, on the summer leak "Big Spender," now apparently being called "Roc-A-Fella Billionaires," which actually comes as a relief after the album's first three hammering tracks. I don't know how much either Jay or 50 had to do with the nuts and bolts of the album's construction; it certainly doesn't seem like Free's exactly been a priority for either one over the last couple of years. But whoever did compile the thing seems to have an innate understanding of Free's strengths and weaknesses. Free is a hard, emotional East Coast rapper who sounds amazing on chopped-up soul loops but who can't do crossover love-rap for shit and who can only really do club-tracks when those club-tracks come with a dizzying urgency to match his own. As Free himself says on "It's Over," Kanye is totally absent from Free at Last, as is Just Blaze, who produced almost all of Philadelphia Freeway. Instead we get their understudies, guys who at this point are probably better at producing clanging insistent soul-rap than Just and Kanye anyway: Bink, Chad Wes, Don Cannon. Their beats might be a bit more simplistic than Just's Philadelphia Freeway tracks, and nothing here is as instantly memorable as "What We Do" or "Line Em Up," but they do the trick. A few guests show up (Busta Rhymes, Jadakiss, Lil Wayne, maybe Oschino), and all of them race to keep up. Commercial concessions are few. On paper, Free's beard-off with Rick Ross on a Cool & Dre track reads like a halfassed capitulation to last year's Miami coke-rap wave, but the track itself works because everyone stays out of Freeway's way and because the beat, a piece of clipped lightweight electro, is fast enough to allow Free to go nuts. It was basically impossible to discern Free's actual lyrics last night, but on first listen the album equals Philadelphia Freeway on consistency and delivery alone. Nobody's ever going to make a major star out of Freeway, and from the sounds of Free at Last, someone finally figured it out. As a potential star, Free will always sound out of his element. As a mid-level album-rapper, he's a monster.

Voice review: Christian Hoard on Freeway's Philadelphia Freeway

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