One of my favorite things to write about last year was the big untold story in East Coast rap, the silent cold war between Jay-Z and 50 Cent that came to a head at Jay’s “I Declare War” concert in October when he pointedly declared war on nobody but brought out a wide range of prominent 50 foes (Nas, Jadakiss) in what seemed to be a sort of massing of the armies. Jay had his team (Nas, Beanie Sigel, Kanye West), and 50 had his (Mobb Deep, M.O.P., Mase), and it looked like it would stay that way, a miles-wide chasm between East Coast rap’s two most successful rappers and their warring conceptions of rap. Or that’s what I thought, anyway. It became apparent pretty quickly that this was a totally simplistic and unrealistic image. Jay and 50 may not like each other, but they aren’t going to let that mutual animosity get in the way of their cashflows. A few months ago, someone at MTV News asked 50 about the cold war, and 50 said that it wasn’t real at all, that he’d even be working with Jay on Freeway’s next album. This seemed unlikely, to say the least; Freeway’s dusty, desperate, conflicted drug-rap never seemed to have much in common with the increasingly banal money-talk that 50’s been doing lately (“Mansion after mansion / Next stop, the Hamptons,” guh). But it turns out that it’s true; the album is mostly done, and it’ll be released as a joint venture between Roc-A-Fella and G-Unit, executive produced by both Jay and 50. The first hard evidence of the collaboration emerged a couple of weeks ago with DJ Whoo Kid and Freeway’s G-Unit Radio 19 mixtape.
On the surface, it makes sense. 50 and Freeway both came up on mixtapes, and they released their first albums within a few months of each other. Freeway is one of those perennially on-the-rise rappers with all the right connections and unimpeachable credibility who nevertheless can’t seem to make the leap to actual stardom. And 50’s been making a habit of snapping up underperforming East Coast street-rappers lately; it’s the reason the Mobb Deep dudes have G-Unit tattoos on their hands now. Allhiphop’s news report on the album’s progress makes it look like we could have a classic on our hands: guest appearances from 50, Young Buck, State Property guys, Scarface, Jay-Z, and Kanye and production from Just Blaze and Kanye, among others; all these guys should be able to match up perfectly with Free’s rangy, classicist aesthetic. Free has consistently been one of the most fascinating figures in rap, a Muslim who raps about girls and drugs and violence but who always sounds guilty about it, who says he’ll stop sinning and commit himself fully to his religion later in life, when he finally gets past all the temptation that constantly surrounds him. Philadelphia Freeway, his first album, didn’t always address that dichotomy, and misguided pop moves like the collaboration with Nelly and the pimp-song with Snoop Dogg kept it from being great. But it’s still a truly strong album, with Just Blaze‘s windswept soul production and Free’s hungry hyena-yelp providing all the relentlessly churning tension that was often missing from the lyrics. Working with the right guys, Freeway seems like he could finally attack his own inner conflict on the new album and become the great rapper he’s always had the potential to be. I’m not sure, though.
I’m not sure because G-Unit Radio 19 is a terrible mixtape, scattered and incoherent and generally unpleasant. Most of the blame can go to Whoo Kid, the most painfully inept big-name mixtape DJ working (worse than Kay Slay even). Whoo Kid can’t put together a cohesive, listenable mixtape to save his life; his echoey vocal drops and gunshot-noises and intrusive skits can turn even a pretty good track into a piece of shit. He also wastes our time with interludes like this one:
Whoo Kid: Should I play a new Freeway joint?
Prince of Bahrain: Yeah, yeah.
Whoo Kid: What do y’all think of Freeway before I get into that?
Prince of Bahrain. You know Freeway Freeway, yeah, I like that dude, you know? You know what I’m saying?
Whoo Kid: He is a fellow Muslim, too, so you know, you got to respect that already.
Prince of Bahrain: Yeah, yeah…(trailing off)
Whoo Kid also pairs Freeway up with Lil Jon on the first track, and every East Coast rapper who tries that move always ends up looking desperate (see: Mobb Deep, Nas). But part of the blame lies with Freeway himself. His voice still sounds amazing, and he still wraps it around beats with a visceral, breathless dedication, but now he’s rapping about his off-shore accounts and antique cars and shit, and it’s even less interesting coming from him than it is from Johnny Q. Mixtape Rapper. Gritty rappers are having more and more problems translating their styles to the G-Unit milieu; Mobb Deep has the same problem all over their new album. When you come up evoking fear and hopelessness and longing and hate, it’s hard to make jewelry-talk work. At this rate, M.O.P. is going to be talking about partying on yachts in Monaco before the end of the year, and nobody wants to hear that shit. Maybe Jay and 50 should get back to silently beefing.
Voice review: Christian Hoard on Freeway’s Philadelphia Freeway