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Freeway

"Free At Last" (Roc-A-Fella) - 4 stars

If there is one thing you can be certain of in this world, it’s this: Freeway is on top of his shit.

A hyperbolic claim? Perhaps, but the sophomore effort from the Philadelphia-based MC, “Free at Last,” is nonetheless a masterful blend of word and song. This is classical rap, if you will—much-needed passionate rhymes delivered in a world dominated by pop-infected, Top-40-intended hip-hop.

It makes sense then that the second track on the album, “It’s Over,” finds Freeway commanding, “You need to fall back and concentrate on your music.” This is a man who’s serious about his craft, and he’s determined to make you know it.

In spite of a 12-to-14 producer-to-track ratio, the album maintains a style throughout that’s all Freeway’s own. The Roc-A-Fella rapper is not beholden to his collaborators, nor is “Free at Last” simply a vehicle for production-heavy hits. In fact, upon listening to the album in its entirety, it’s a little difficult to pick out the lead single, as is a perennial possibility with, say, Kanye or R. Kelly releases. That’s because “Free at Last” is an album, through and through.

This fact is suggestive of why Freeway isn’t raking in as much as some of his album’s guest MCs (Jay-Z, Busta Rhymes, Jadakiss). Simply put, “Free at Last” isn’t iTunes-friendly, nor does it seem particularly designed for club or radio play (though it deserves to get some of both).

This is music to be listened to, because unlike many of his contemporaries, Freeway has something to say.

On closer “I Cry,” a musical inventory of his life’s lowpoints, Freeway speaks, “I’m gonna break it down to y’all, a few times in my life where I had to cry. It’s just grown man shit.” Not to channel Bill Cosby, but it’s a wonderful thing when a rapper decides to embrace manhood.

But back to the music. It’s hard not to be enraptured by Freeway’s impassioned, raspy voice, just as it’s tough to underestimate his intuition for placing a fermata above a lyric just where it’s needed. If Otis Redding rapped, he might be Freeway.

The album’s melodies are sparse, beautiful, often sampled from old soul hits, marked by heraldic horns and enough jazz flute to make Herbie Mann proud.

“Free at Last” isn’t without its faults though. “Take It To The Top,” featuring 50 Cent, is a garish, tired rip-off of Fiddy’s usual loverman bullshit (think “Candy Shop” or “Follow My Lead”). This is the only track on the album that could be seen as a blatant attempt at a pop hit, and may prevent the albums more tasteful listeners from hearing the disc all the way through.

Despite that blip, though, “Free at Last” is a strong album, worthy of attention, praise, and repeated listenings. It, along with its juggernaut siblings—Jay-Z’s “American Gangster” and Kanye West’s “Graduation”—may just prove to make 2007 the year of the Roc.

—Staff writer Ruben L. Davis can be reached at rldavis@fas.harvard.edu.
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