At the height of the Roc dynasty’s rule over the rap game, Jay-Z, Freeway and Beanie Sigel all hopped on the classic banger “What We Do,” a track that expounds on the nature of drug dealing, delivered with a hustler mentality. The song was one of the centerpieces of Free’s grizzly 2003 debut Philadelphia Freeway, an album packed with slick soul beats and tough-guy rhymes. It conveyed the Roc’s power in matching talented emcees with music that complemented their styles, and Free was no exception. His voice may have been gruff and scratchy, but it gave the edge needed to balance his polished beats.
Freeway found success and built a moderate fanbase, but even though his career was burgeoning, Roc-A-Fella Records hit a wall. Beanie Sigel went to jail, Jay-Z abandoned rap for a seat in the executive chair, and Freeway inexplicably went into musical hibernation. The family was losing its grip on listeners, and with the Roc’s co-founder Dame Dash severing business ties with Hova, the record imprint appeared to have come to its demise.
Recently, Roc-A-Fella has shown that there is still some blood left in its veins, and each one of the rappers on “What We Do” have released fiery solo albums this fall. Jay’s American Gangster is based on both musical and lyrical nostalgia, while Sigel’s The Solution sounds more like a cheap attempt to break into the mainstream. On his long-awaited sophomore record Free At Last, Freeway finds a comfortable medium between the two approaches, grounding his intricate rhymes in an exploration of the Roc’s turmoil while rapping over syrupy soul beats. The record has the same hardcore qualities as his debut and there isn’t much growth, but this is precisely the type of music that put the Roc on the map in the first place.
The most notable difference between this record and his debut is the absence of producers Just Blaze and Kanye West, as well as the suspicious addition of a 50 Cent executive production credit. But in spite of his losses and gains, the record still thrives with and without help from his associates, and Free does his best to make sure the album stays under his control. Over beats threaded with disintegrating soul samples and chalky drums, Free discusses everything from life on the grind in “Reppin’ the Streets” to a visceral reflection on the loss of his grandparents on “I Cry”. The beats may stylistically vacillate from one song to the next, but Freeway’s voice never strays from its linear growl, and that momentum consistently enlivens each track throughout the album’s play.
Even though some of the songs could slop over into gushy territory, Freeway focuses on ripping those beats to shreds rather than falling victim to their emotive qualities. The album begins with the Karma Productions-hemmed “This Can’t Be Real,” a wispy track featuring the somber coos of Marsha Ambrosius alongside a twittering flute melody. Free addresses some sensitive subject matter by discussing the Roc’s breakup, but even when he tries to be emotional, his snarls undercut his attempt at embracing more meaningful subject matter.
Fortunately, Free gets a more aggressive beat to help deal with controversy on the Jake One-produced “It’s Over.” Rapping on top of blaring horns and an ominous choral sample, he talks about his inability to get in touch with Just Blaze and Kanye for his sophomore album. He rhymes, “Things just ain’t the same for gangstas / But I don’t give a fuck, I’m back without a Just track / Tried to reach out and work, but he ain’t chirp back.” His ferocity and vocal inflections give the lines a sarcastic tone, and even though he closes out the rhymes with “It’s all good,” his passionate delivery can make the listener suspect that the dust may not have altogether settled inside the Roc-A-Fella camp.
This aggression is audible on a large chunk of Free At Last, making some tracks the rawest and grimiest material to come out of Philadelphia since Free’s debut. “When They Remember,” produced by Bink, is the most hard-hitting piece on the record, with Freeway immaculately toying with wordplay by disregarding the beat’s time signature, starting sentences on the upbeat and pausing between bars. He doles out empty threats and shares his disapproval of “underage chickens”, but he does it with such a charged energy that even the bleating wall of horns and gutsy vocal sample cannot compete with his powerful delivery. Freeway does tone it down, and on the Scarface-assisted “Baby Don’t Do It”, Chad “Wes” Hamilton provides a soul track reminiscent of the Roc’s golden sound while Free raps about the Roc’s impact on the music industry.
Even with some of Freeway’s most compelling material to date, Free At Last has some pretty serious faults that cripple its solidity. With his name surprisingly attached to the project, 50 Cent appears on the lovey-dovey “Take It to the Top”, a schmaltzy J.R. Totem-produced club song for the ladies. The track makes Freeway sound completely out-of-place on his own album, and his rumbling voice simply does not jive with the glossy radio-friendly beat.
Later on the disc is “Lights Get Low,” another track that proves that Freeway needs supple soul beats to make his songs thrive. Concocted by Cool and Dre, “Lights” has a spacey synth beat filled with airy snares and kicks, and Free can do nothing but unload his rhymes at a rapid pace to keep the listener from falling asleep. The track does show how strong of a lyricist and presence Freeway can be when placed next to a rapper with a similar growl, as Rick Ross throws some lazy rhymes on top of the beat, but Free can barely keep the song from losing its replay value.
Free At Last isn’t perfect, but when his songs are ripe with emotion and meaning, he can be forgiven for his mistakes. Freeway is not for everyone, and this album shows that he cannot cover every base no matter who he enlists to help him. The record does recall the days when the Roc’s sound was based on sped-up soul samples and sparkling drums, and although it does little to show whether or not the Roc will regain its throne in the near future, it proves that Freeway is as organic and gritty as a rapper can be.