“I’m back without a Just track, / Tried to reach out and work but he aint chirp back.”
That’s how Freeway kicks off “It’s Over,” the second song on his long-awaited sophomore release Free at Last. For many rappers, the “It” refers to their careers: putting out a worthwhile album without producer Just Blaze’s support, especially after he produced the bulk of Freeway’s debut, would seem impossible. But Freeway is too talented and too hungry to let the snub keep him down. At the same time, though, Blaze’s absence is obvious.
Philadelphia Freeway, the husky, bearded rapper’s 2003 debut, featured a very raw Free, but nonetheless is considered a classic by many hardcore rap fans, but many hold that opinion because of the album’s production. Just Blaze produced the popular “What We Do…,” “Flipside,” “Line ‘Em Up” and several others on the disc. Kanye West also produced a couple tracks for the debut, yet he too is missing from Free at Last.
Philadelphia’s production catered nicely to Freeway’s unique flow and delivery in a way Free at Last can’t match. In addition to not adhering to a conventional rhyme scheme, Free’s voice is relatively high-pitched and often seems strained. It sounds as if he’s running out of breath and struggling to utter the last few syllables before passing out.
Over quick drums and rapid piano keys on “Nuttin’ On Me,” Free spits, “Free top-billin’ you try to steal him it’s Knotts Landin’ / It’s God’s plan that them shots landin’ do not kill him / I got ’em runnin his car peelin’ the block scrambling.’ ” His lyricism makes up for a beat that’s good though not great, but tracks like “Spit That Shit” are irreparably damaged by bland production.
Free at Last retains much of the soulful vibe present on Philadelphia, but the bottom line is that there’s only one Just Blaze. So while the sample on “When They Remember” provides a nice backdrop for Free’s reflection of his rap career, the drums seem a little off-kilter.
Executive producers Jay-Z and 50 Cent – have two bigger stars ever co-produced an album before? – make appearances on “Roc-A-Fella Billionaires” and “Take It to the Top,” respectively. Hov and Free trade verses over whistles and choppy synths to offer the album’s most upbeat songs. It’s a sound that Freeway fails to capture again, though, and it’s a shame. But hey, it’s not entirely his fault – Just Blaze never called him back.
Rating: three out of five stars
Free at Last