Freeway - Free At Last

Posted November 18, 2007
Tags: Freeway,

I’m officially announcing the “hip-hop is dead” movement is…well…dead. Buried....

Free At Last Album Review

I’m officially announcing the “hip-hop is dead” movement is…well…dead. Buried. Never to be mentioned again. It was a ridiculous statement to start off with; a panicked reaction by older heads (that includes you Nas) who looked out over the hip-hop landscape, didn’t recognize what they saw, and said it was devoid of life. Sure hip-hop on a commercial level is seriously sick, overall album sales are still down, but as an art form it’s as alive as ever. 2007 has witnessed the birth of so many great albums (American Gangster, Finding Forever, Underground Kingz, just to name a few), we might just be entering another golden age.

For me the “hip-hop is dead” theory was finally laid to rest by Freeway and his new album Free At Last. It’s been four years since Philadelphia’s grimiest rapper last dropped a solo album, but in the meantime he’s been honing his skills - and his beard game – to powerful effect. Free at Last isn’t a classic album, but on nearly every minute of every song Free raps like he’d die without a mic in his hand. If that’s not alive, I don’t know what is.

If you’re looking for the raw energy of hip-hop’s roots look no further than It’s Over, a track that’s half soul swing, half old school turntable scratches. Freeway might be…hold on let me think about it…no, Freeway is the most intense MC in mainstream rap. He doesn’t just grab the mic- he strangles it. Listening to Free blast through the verses on It’s Over reveals a rapper with the lung capacity of a heavy metal singer combined with a style that’s pure street. Similarly, When They Remember is the kind of joint Freeway was born to do; no hook, no bridge, no chorus, just four straight minutes of rhymes so heated you start to worry his vocal cords are going to explode. Don’t let all this talk of vocal style overshadow Free’s lyricism; no one else would drop a line like “all my Islamic scholars holler.” Freeway gets mentioned as “the most underrated MC” so often he’s no longer underrated, but all that really matters is Free spits every rhyme like it’s his last. Hip-hop can’t be dead with a pulse that strong.

Am I making it sound like Free At Last is a flawless album? Let me backtrack a little. The same kind of do-or-die intensity that makes Freeway’s street anthems so dope kills the more radio-friendly tracks on the album. Take It To The Top is Free’s attempt at recreating the thug-romance of 50’s 21 Questions; even Mr. Cent gets in on the action by singing the hook. J.R. Rotem puts together a catchy beat and if Freeway sounded like a chubby Jamaican teenager it’d be a hit. Thankfully he doesn’t, and so Take It To The Top just doesn’t work. It’s the same story on Lights Get Low, a song featuring an electronically-banging Cool and Dre beat undercutting rewind-worthy verses from Free and Rick Ross (who both take their name from drug kingpin Rick “Freeway” Ross). Unfortunately, the song’s the musical equivalent of the New York Knicks; a collection of great players whose styles just don’t mesh. There’s no such chemistry concerns when label boss and close friend Jay-Z joins him on Roc-A-Fella Billionaires, though I could point out that there’s only one billionaire on the track. Free obviously knows how to murder a track, but his Billionaires’ flow might be the best on the album precisely because he relaxes and rides the insane-marching band style production. If Freeway’s going to find radio gold it’s going to be on joints like Billionaires, not songs like Take It To The Top that force him to tone down “baby gorilla” personality.

The “hip-hop is dead” crowd insisted that current rappers were more interested in diamond watches than the state of their souls. They were right in part (hello Gucci Mane), but they're also ignoring tracks like Freeway’s I Cry, a song that literally lists every time Freeway’s ever shed a tear. Free’s unstoppably strong voice nearly cracks as he recounts the people in his life who have passed; it's a deeply powerful moment that demands recognition. Free At Last isn’t perfect, but it’s moments like these that will have me returning to the album years from now. So in that way Freeway’s created music that can’t die, not as long as artists like him are giving us the energy to shout “I’m alive motherf**kers!”

DJBooth Rating - 4 Spins

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Posted November 18, 2007
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