It took me forever to review Scholarman’s fourth solo album because, I have to admit, I really am a little fickle when it comes to my listening habits. I listen to things that I hear being talked about more than things I necessarily like, and sometimes that attitude frames my perception of artists I have never heard anyone mention before. When I first put Free Spirit of a Troubled Soul in my car stereo, I was greeted with a early-Kanye type sound with an MC that reminded me of Rhymefest and Consequence, two MCs closely associated with Kanye during his Chicago period.
But over the following weeks, I let the album just slip away, lost in a sea of free mixtapes and overhyped debuts. Scholarman became a casualty of human nature. And now that I’ve returned to this album a couple months later, I just feel bad about it. See, Scholarman isn’t an explosive or revolutionary MC—those familiar with the blue collar artists Kanye originally associated G.O.O.D. Music with will find plenty familiar in the sound of this release—but he is a very capable one, and his self-production is something that deserves to take notice. It’s quite often a pleasure to hear how he measures raw golden age MC skills with a similar enthusiasm for samples and raw beat breaks. As I listen to this now, I can’t help but think that I was only indifferent to Scholarman’s music because I wanted to be.
His album presents the unique dilemma of hip-hop fandom: oftentimes we clamor for what when received we dismiss as dull. MCs like Scholarman—weathered journeymen who hold old school values of battle rhymes and conscious lyricism close to their heart—are considered a dime a dozen by the hip-hop masses, even though the opposite is true as well. Scholarman’s struggle is to remain conscious while entertaining a crowd, something generic Americans seem predisposed to assume an impossible task. I include myself among those.
A lot of this review doesn’t concern Free Spirit of the Troubled Soul because it’s a pretty self-explanatory album. None of the songs here haven’t been done another way before (generally a decade ago) and none of Scholarman’s turns of phrase ring particularly original. But the professionalism and polish of the work he does present here in the right setting can give that odd feeling that you had been missing something all the other times you heard this album, or other similarly DIY non-gangsta hip-hop, and passed it off as dull or didactic.
Free Spirit of a Troubled Soul is a healthy and well-polished listen, and beyond originality Scholarman takes little away from himself over 47 minutes of runtime. Perhaps the album would have sounded more at home in the middle of last decade rather than a modern-day DC release, but otherwise this is an album recommended to anyone prepared to root for the underdog, who enjoys a good hip-hop album, or simply feels disenfranchised with the direction of mainstream rap.