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Roc The Mic Right

I can’t lie, I thought Freeway’s sophomore LP, Free At Last, would never come out. First he got himself occupied with an Ice City group project (which I actually produced a song on, check #7 “Through My Rearview”), and then the whole State Property implosion, and lastly the Roc-A-Fella break-up. I thought he was a goner, destined for the greener pastures of Koch. But he landed back on Roc-A-Fella when Jay took over at Def Jam. And when it was announced roughly a year and a half ago that Jay-Z and 50 Cent would be co-executive producing his project, I imagined it’d be a giant shit sandwich, rife with the after-affects of too much tampering by over-the-hill rappers turned executives. I figured the album would sound like one big copy and paste job, where Jay and 50 picked out 16 records of the 350 thousand songs Freeway has stashed on a hard drive somewhere, and just slapped them together and pressed up a CD. That’s what executive production is these days. But alas, I digress.

Anyway, man was I in for a surprise when I heard this album. Not only is it good, it’s damn near incredible. I’d argue that it’s one of the best East Coast rap records to come out in the past two or three years. Freeway’s voice and delivery have always been an acquired taste, but on this project he blends well with the tracks, never really overpowering the beats or letting the beats overpower him. It’s what you might call a marriage between the lead vocal, the rhythm, and the music. In other words, just some quality hot ass records. There’s not one song I can really think of where I’m like, “Why the fuck did he choose to rhyme like that on this beat?” I can’t say I don’t have that same thought at least 5 or 6 times when I’m listening to most rap albums, which ordinarily sound like just a hodgepodge of wannabe-single tracks slapped together at the last minute to create an album because the label is trying to file for a tax write-off (see Jadakiss signs to Def Jam).

I don’t have a list of production credits, so I don’t know who did each particular track (too bad the record I produced for him, “JUMP,” didn’t make the cut). I can tell you this much, the album is soulful as hell. And that’s no surprise. That’s the sound Roc-A-Fella was built on, and Free is a Philly native. That’s Gamble and Huff territory. That soul is in dude’s blood. But there’s a big difference between Free at Last soul and the soul of Jay’s recent American Gangster project, and I’m gonna go out on a limb here and say Free’s album is the better-produced project. Honestly, I am actually listening to the album scratching my head as to why Jay didn’t pick some of these tracks for AG. The drums hit harder, the samples are more textured and musically diverse, and just overall they are more cohesive and well put together. In fact, I feel like the cohesiveness Jay was aiming for on AG is even more successfully achieved on Free At Last. I can listen to this album start to finish, no skips. AG? Not so much. Definitely a skip or two in there. Even the electro synth blurps of the Rick Ross-assisted “Lights Get Low,” which does stray from the soulful vibe of Free’s album, sits well within the mix of the other songs. So does the crispy clean JR Rotem-production “Take It To The Top,” which is 50’s lone contribution.

Free At Last, in terms of the overall quality of the songs and the project’s cohesiveness, is what the typical rap album experience used to be. I would love to see artists get back to setting this type of standard for themselves. Just making dope records that are lyrically and musically progressive while at the same actually sound good enough to take on a long ride down I-95 without begging for you to chuck the CD or your ipod out the window when that random ass “get your hands in air” wannabe Swizz Beats knockoff track comes on and fucks up your whole mood.

Cratediggers should have some fun trying to find the original samples for most of the joints on the album too. And that’s always a plus.

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