It’s hardly any surprise that rapper Freeway gets love in 2007. While the rest of the rap world gorges itself on media, celebrity, and excess, Philadelphia’s hardest-trying rapper veers from the pack and just raps. Since the early 2000s, he has appealed to fans of that old smack-down style and channeled your favorite-hungry-rapper-in-his/her-prime. As a Roc-A-Fella pinch hitter, he rhymed alongside his Roc la Familia brethren on The Dynasty and State Property, and shouted, grunted, and pleaded with all the gusto of a hungry young pup. Even while making the promotional rounds, such as his high-profile collaboration with Mariah Carey, his mean-muggin’ demeanor never wavered. His 2003 solo debut, Philadelphia Freeway, was an aggressively yearning hustle that hardly resembled the crack-cool demeanor of contemporary megastars like 50 Cent and Jay-Z. Along with Roc labelmate Beanie Sigel, Freeway has been embraced as a rallying force for the passing generation.
Which sets the stage for his "return." His sophomore effort, Free At Last, arrives after a four-year pause. To dramatize the anticipation, much has been made of the absence of Kanye West and Just Blaze, the two principal producers behind Philadelphia Freeway. However, the attention of the question of whether Free can do without them is unfair considering that ‘Ye and Jus’ were hardly megastars at the time. That neither was available for this go-around, as Free rhymes in "It’s Over" ("Try to reach out to work/ He didn’t chirp back/ It’s all good"), says more about divergent career paths than fraternal abandonment. While Kanye fills a slot in this year’s GQ Man of the Year poll and Just posts incessantly to boost his mythology, Free remains that guy on the block. His scope of vision is limited to mid-’90s tropes — stunts, blunts, and hip-hop — and he appropriately picks backward-glancing production filled with familiar samples of Gil Scott-Heron, Curtis Mayfield and Gladys Knight. Though the title Free at Last suggests a cathartic breakthrough, the intent is actually to embrace Freeway’s anachronistic idiosyncrasies.
As such, Free at Last is everything that his heads could want. The bombastic proclamations (the aptly titled "Spit That Shit" and "Nuttin’ On Me"), the tawdry pop concessions (the Fiddy hooktastic "Take It to the Top," and, ironically, the requisite swagger blather of "Roc-A-Fella Millionaires," which posits Jay-Z on B’Way again, nearly ten years later), and the hold-back-the-tears reminiscences (the autobiographical "This Can’t Be Real") bookend the expected emotional arc from this requisite "street rapper." Unfortunately, noteworthy prerelease heat did not make the final cut: Chad Wes Hamilton’s ’80s vibin’ "Some Say Yes" and the Godfather theme-sampling "Paper Gangster" are noticeably absent. However, the record still cogently captures Free’s main concerns — which should be enough for even the most fickle nostal-jack.