If you rewound back to the mid-2000s when Roc-A-Fella Records was king, you’d probably be surprised if someone surveyed the label’s landscape and concluded that, of all the talent under Jay-Z and Dame Dash’s wings, Freeway would wind up carving out the most consistent solo career. But against the odds that’s exactly what happened, with the Jake One collaboration Stimulus Package sitting atop the whole package as certification that Freeway could craft one of a year’s great releases. But it’s one thing to capture that muse when you’re collaborating with one dude on an incredibly focused label like Rhymesayers and quite another to try and rewind the clock to 2005 on Babygrande. A lot has changed about the hip-hop landscape since then, and the bid for radio play that Diamond in the Ruff has ended up being can’t shine a harsh enough light on that fact. Freeway’s delivery is as powerful as it ever was, but his actual content is more Philadelphia Freeway 2 than Philadelphia Freeway, and people he’s brought along with him give Diamond in the Ruff a slightly stale feel, like bread that’s been out of the bag a little longer than it ought to have been.
You could definitely be forgiven for not getting that feeling right away, though. “Right Back” opens the album the way those Roc-A-Fella albums we’re all nostalgic for did, with a mid-tempo boom bap beat from Jake One anchored by an R&B hook. Marsha Ambrosius slays that, her vocals might have never sounded crisper. While Freeway says some pretty odd things through the track (seriously, “Fab say he the best that ever twitted? / Well I’m the hottest spitter that ever Googled”?) overall his exasperated flow combined with the beat’s atmosphere creates a very earnest, aspirational vibe. It’s a great start because the track makes Freeway out to be an artist worth rooting for. Unfortunately, “Greatness” follows with a hi-tempo Dipset-mixtape type of track from Incredible Stro, who also handles “Jungle” late in the album’s runtime, and it just hangs there. Six of the 16 tracks on Diamond in the Ruff bring along an R&B vocalist to sell the hook, and while one out of three may not sound like an appalling ratio, it’s certainly a drag to have two of them right at the beginning when Freeway is generally at his best when he gets to go off on his own for four minutes. Or four of them crammed into the first six tracks.
This is probably why “The Thirst” and “No Doubt” are the album’s two high points. “The Thirst” teams Freeway with Jake One again and feels like it just came at the wrong time otherwise it would have been right at home on Stimulus Package. And “No Doubt” is just a fun, Mr. Bangladesh-style banger that reminds folks Freeway was signed to Cash Money Records for like a month in 2009. It’s not always fun to hear rappers who are clearly designed for a certain aesthetic try and keep up with the times (see: LL Cool J, “Rachet”) but Freeway pulls it off finely if not stunningly. But both times their momentum gets cut a bit short by “Wonder Tape”, which is just annoying musically with its faux-cheap aesthetic and “Dream Big”, a Bink! joint that feels he forgot 2003 happened already. By no means a poor song on its own merits, it’s just not a very surprising one either. You’ve heard this song one way or another on plenty of low and high budget east coast rap albums over the years, and it hasn’t gotten any less mechanical this time around.
The middle-section is probably the most nostalgia-driven point of the album. “Early” follows with a Just Blaze joint that very easily could have appeared on Cam’ron’s Purple Haze. Again, it’s a perfectly well done song on the strength of itself, there’s just not necessarily anything memorable about it, either. As the album forges onward over the last 30 minutes, the feeling starts to settle in that the same could be said of Freeway’s rhymes. His delivery is still one of my ten personal favorites but he’s just not getting at much here from a songwriting perspective. “Hottest Akhi” is a thoroughly confusing song both linguistically and logically, at least until you remember the “ock” trend from the early 2000s that came out of Roc-A-Fella’s spotlight on Philly culture. “Numbers” might play the part convincingly, and it’s always fun to see Neef (of the old Young Gunz duo) pop his head up, but ultimately you’re listening to two Philly veterans play Meek Mill karaoke. Even Jake One, DJ Khalil and Bink! can’t seem to lift Diamond in the Ruff‘s rudderless, bloated second half. “True” is a Wale-collab lovers track that doesn’t go far enough in its slight go-go aspirations, opting instead for limp professionalism. And “All the Hoods” may be the worst Bink! Dog joint to come around in a minute, instantly displaying everything wrong with that sort of R&B-driven schlock.
Diamond in the Ruff, despite its best efforts, can’t help but feel like it just had to exist. It’s one of those rap albums that’s disappointing as often as slightly engaging, and oftentimes is hard to pinpoint exactly what’s letting you down. If I could sum this album up in one line, it’d be Freeway’s “Call us Domino’s Pizza ‘cause we bring it” on outstanding dud “All the Hoods” (the chorus? “I deliver it just like chicken & gravy, just like chicken & gravy, just like chicken & gravy,” for some reason). Domino’s Pizza certainly delivers, that much is infallible – but are you really that excited about getting anything from Domino’s? Or are you just tired of being hungry? Freeway’s proven he can do a lot better than the Domino’s of Philly rappers, but Diamond in the Ruff really isn’t the evidence that proves it, sadly.