The best beard in rap
If onstage body-language is any indication, Jay-Z loves Freeway. The two times I’ve seen Free make guest-appearances at Jay’s shows, Jay’s made the same faces during Free’s “What We Do” verse that he made when Free did the song in Fade to Black: a sort of enthralled disbelief, a fan’s reaction. But even if Jay loves Free, that doesn’t mean he has a whole lot of commercial faith in the guy. Free At Last, the new Freeway album, is coming out into an absurdly crowded third quarter, and it’s coming with absolutely zero Def Jam marketing muscle. Three cheap made-for-YouTube videos of Free At Last tracks hit the internet this week, and they’re all pretty good, but I haven’t seen a single one of them on TV yet, and I still DVR Rap City every day for some reason. “Step Back,” the track Free did with Lil Wayne, which Free played during the album’s listening party a couple of weeks back, is nowhere to be found. Free At Last comes out two weeks after Jay’s American Gangster and two weeks before Beanie Sigel’s The Solution, which effectively forces Free to compete in the marketplace with both his mentor and his mentor’s mentor, along with every single end-of-year Def Jam tax writeoff. The purported 50 Cent exec-producer credit is nowhere in the album’s liner notes. And as Free complains on “It’s Over,” there’s not a single Kanye West or Just Blaze track anywhere on the album. Back when Free released Philadelphia Freeway a billion years ago, there were a few indications that Jay actually thought he might make a star out of Freeway; it had guest-spots from Nelly and Mariah Carey, and Just Blaze produced virtually every track. But as Kelefa Sanneh points out here, the idea that Freeway might ever become a major star were always sort of ridiculous: he’s a raspy-voiced sparkplug with a giant beard and no crossover appeal whatsoever. So it’s not even especially sad to see Def Jam treating this guy like a B-lister. After all, he makes a great B-lister.
The first track on Free At Last is “This Can’t Be Real,” a warm and jazzy track with no real chorus, Free making like Bun B on “The Story” and sinking into a deep reminiscing section about how he first came into rap, still sounding pissed at himself about getting locked up right after he first met Jay. The second track, “It’s Over,” is on some great hammering runaway locomotive shit, horns blasting royally while Free comes hungry and heated, venting about all the disrespect he’s forced to endure. And the third, “Still Got Love,” is a pretty, happy track with a busy synthed-up Bink beat where Free growls thankfully about everyone who supports him. So in the first three tracks, we’ve got Free in three distinct modes: pensive, angry, and contented. The thing is his delivery doesn’t really change when he switches from one mood to the next; it’s the same guttural drawn-out yammering whine throughout. With virtually any other rapper, that would be a profound liability. With Free, it’s almost a saving grace; his voice never really gets old over the course of the record, though Free was probably smart to keep the thing to a quick 50 minutes.
Even though Free switches moods throughout the album, he doesn’t play the pandering connect-the-dots game where every song is a concession to some potential audience. Only two songs really leap out of the sequencing: “Take It to the Top,” the putrid and ill-advised loverman track with the zero-chemistry 50 Cent chorus, and “Lights Get Low,” the synthed-up Cool & Dre car-chase track with the unbelievably cheesy club-pop chorus and the surprisingly decent Rick Ross guest-spot. Free never really connects on “Take It to the Top,” but he’s plenty comfortable on “Lights Get Low”; the only real problem with the track is that it fucks up the album’s flow a bit. Pretty much every other track is stormy, soulful East Coast street-rap with busy drums and screaming R&B samples. Freeway isn’t an especially quotable rapper, but his urgent vein-popping delivery more than makes up for any unremarkable lyrics. It’s probably no surprise that the album doesn’t sound as exciting on headphones as it did in S.O.B.’s at the listening session, where Free stayed at the front of the stage, rapping along with his recorded voice. Some of the beats are too flat and trebly make the best use out of Free’s raging yowl, and there’s barely a hook to be found on the whole album. But tracks like “Baby Don’t Do It,” where Free and Scarface trade verses over a well-worn Willie Hutch sample, are a big part of the reason I get out of bed every day.
In interviews, Free’s been talking about how annoyed he was that Philadelphia Freeway stalled out after going gold, how he thinks this album will put him where he needs to be. That’s standard rap-interview talk, and I’m really happy to discover that Free At Last is a real niche-audience product, a gift to the tiny sliver of the pop-music audience that wants to hear furiously passionate roars of pride over big drums and bittersweet Vietnam-era samples. Rap sales have gone all to hell this year, but now that most rappers have accepted that they aren’t going to be pop stars anytime soon, they’ve readjusted their expectations and started working to keep their core audiences happy. Looking back, this has actually been a pretty good year for full-length albums from mid-level rappers. If albums like Free At Last keep coming out, maybe the whole sales-dive phenomenon will turn out to be a blessing in disguise.
Voice review: Christian Hoard on Freeway’s Philadelphia Freeway