Even though 8 Mile turned it into a heroic, Rocky-style archetype of urban odds-beating, battle rhyming (and the raw talent it assumes) is an oft overvalued part of rap-game success, especially among heads. Despite the attractiveness of summing up skillz so succinctly, it’s easy to forget that most next-big-thing rappers arrive in your stereo with equal measures good luck and assistance from well-established backers, and also that first-rate rhymes often make for third-rate records. And whatever the case, most new thugs on the block will at least get a second shot, if only to ensure their label gets a return on its investment.
All of which is fairly obvious, I suppose, but which is thrown into sharp relief by Freeway and Fabolous, two comparably blessed rhymers whose newish records (Free’s first, Fab’s second) nonetheless end up miles apart. Freeway, an Amish-bearded Sunni Muslim with the obligatory dope-slinging background, signed with Roc-a-Fella after his old Philly buddy Beanie Sigel introduced him to a soon besmitten Jay-Z. (Hova was so confident in the upstart MC’s flow that he wagered cold cash on Hot 97 that no one could match Freeway in battle. To date, no one’s taken up the challenge.) Fabolous, who debuted two years ago with a terrific, loose-tongued single (the Nate Dogg-assisted “I Can’t Deny It”), is a 23-year-old Brooklynite with fashion model good looks and a honeyed, Mase-slow flow. On both of their cameo-stuffed records, their distinct voices are subsumed in production as bouncy and r&b as it is pricey. But where Free’s album works its way up to a lively, beat-wise sleekness, Fab’s jiggles like week-old Jell-O while the platinum kid gets drunk on his own hype. (Speaking of production, really the deciding factor with both albums, I find the recent r&b-electro-synthy turn among big-name—especially East Coast—beatmakers a little disturbing. Realized most vividly on current albums by Jay-Z, Busta Rhymes, and Snoop Dog, this boombapless music is sleekness for its own sake: a bling-bling equivalent of ’80s studio slickness and unfeeling art-rock. Never mind that undie producers like El-P treat fun[k] like a big pile of anthrax; that’s a trend that has yet to bubble up aboveground. But from the big boys, I do ask for a little meat and potatoes to go with all the caviar and Cristal. Maybe even some new James Brown samples.)
Freeway’s high-pitched wheeze evokes none other than Ghostface Killah, a worthy exemplar whose cutting, almost emo cries are too much for most MCs. But where Ghost’s small-crime background and Wu Tang association made for street vignettes of Kafkaesque proportion, Freeway’s nonstop hustler’s rhetoric doesn’t beget much gravitas. The production, especially Just Blaze’s, yokes soul samples, spacey synths, and bouncy percussion—most successfully so on the album’s first single, “What We Do.” Some soul sistah intones the chorus: “Even though what we do is wrong . . . ” Freeway, who had two kids born to separate mamas while he was locked up for drug trafficking, fills in the details some but neither tries to naturalize violence à la 50 Cent or rotely celebrate his life of crime. He just mentions, matter-of-factly, that “if my kids hungry/snatch the dishes out your kitchen.”
Everything else on Philadelphia Freeway feels just as breezy. Freeway’s either so little concerned with street cred or so confident that it will shine through anyway that he even employs Nelly to sing the excellent hook “On My Own,” which finds Free threatening anonymous haters and yelping desperately over random organ swells. He matches every other guest (Sigel, Jigga, Snoop Dog, Faith Evans, a not totally out-of-place Mariah Carey) for distinctness of presence, even when his content is too damn cynical. And just to show you he can rock a little, the bonus tracks include the awesome 12-inch “Line ‘Em Up,” which funks up a rambling guitar line while Free and fellow up-and-comer Young Chris promise to bust skulls (or just rap really well—they’re kinda vague).
Where Freeway transcends his one-dimensional worldview by making it relaxed and streamlined, Fabolous falls prisoner to his cheesy self-image. “In the ’70s the street dream was to become a pimp or a mack,” Fab told Rolling Stone. “In the ’80s, kids wanted to be some kind of drug dealer, and in the ’90s it switched to an athlete. Now rap is the street dream.” It’s OK that Street Dreams focuses on rap-game conquest rather than the struggle to get there; at times, Fab’s well-syncopated sass is nimble enough to make you wanna raise your Hennessy along with him. But mostly all you get is the smug self-satisfaction, idle threats, and two-girls-a-night braggadocio of a young playa, as evidenced by a succession of dumb song titles (“Dick,” “Not Give a Fuck,” “Never Duplicated,” “This Is My Party”) and even dumber rhymes.
Even with Timbaland his usual fine self, only the percussion-laden “Dick” and “Sickalicious” groove memorably. Most tracks trade impact for cheesy hooks, skittery beats, and rudimentary keyboard riffs that can’t help but evoke that jiggly seizure-type shit Puffy’s dancers were big into a few years back. “Though I am often imitated/I am never duplicated,” Fabolous rhymes near the end of Street Dreams. He’s wrong—and here’s hoping he figures it out before he turns into some forgotten hack a few years down the line, conning some indie label into paying for his beats while he whines about how he coulda been a contender.