Free At Last

posted November 21, 2007 09:29:33 AM CST | 68 comments

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Freeway's got expectations. His 2003 debut Philadelphia Freeway, anchored by memorable records like the Jay-Z and Beanie Sigel-featured What We Do, garnered critic and fan love for its spellbinding production and Free's energetic, screechy rhymes. Years later, even though his storied Roc-A-Fella label has lost the thunder it had in its heyday, debatable classics from franchise players Jay and Kanye West have raised the bar for subsequent releases. Forging a new relationship with 50 Cent, Free At Last features executive production from both 50 and Jay, two moguls with established track records. Freeway, a Muslim, has also visited the Mecca since his last disc, and has been quoted as saying that his decision to rap directly conflicts with his religious beliefs. And with the leaked selection It's Over raising buzz with Free's admittance of zilch beats from Just Blaze and Kanye (who, together, produced 12 of Philadelphia Freeway's 16 tracks), he better know what he's doing. Fortunately, Freeway's sophomore effort answers everything in spades.

Four years after his debut, fans will be pleased to hear that Freeway hasn't left his Roc roots. While Just and Kanye are notably absent, their replacements shoulder the load surprisingly well. Long-time Roc contributors Bink and Chad "Wes" Hamilton keep the dynasty's trademark sound intact, lacing Freeway with harmonious, sample-driven soundscapes. When They Remember features Bink utilizing a stellar drum set, consistent wails and sparse horns, while the slept-on Hamilton blesses  Free and a reinvigorated Scarface with the musically-rich Baby Don't Do It. The incredible opener This Can't Be Real features Marsha Ambrosius crooning the refrain and a soulful backdrop that employs melodic keys and flutes from no-name Karma Productions. All that Jay and Free's side-by-side flossing on Roc-A-Fella Billionaires is missing is the Dame Dash Disco Dance ( Shake). Though someone needs to explain to me why Free keeps saying "Roc-A-Fella millionaires" in the chorus. Check the title homie.

More interesting Free At Last is the clear influence from its other executive producer. Though the 50-featured Take It To The Top disappoints with an overly-light J.R. Rotem beat that clashes with Free's voice, the rest of the seemingly obvious 50 contributions work well. Spit That Shit features pounding keys from Dangerous LLC (Disco Inferno) that sound straight from G-Unit's Beg For Mercy, and Freeway adjusts his gangsta accordingly. Nuttin On Me does similarly, with frenetic clanks by frequent Unit beatsmith Needlez. A highlight is Walk With Me, on which Don Cannon drops venomous pianos to back tough bars from Free, Busta Rhymes and new Roc-A-Fella signee Jadakiss. 50's ear for "aggressive content" serves Free At Last well, contributing harder material that not only stands well on its own, but works as an operative contrast to the soulful sound that fills the rest of the disc.

Though the exceptional outside contributions make it easy to do so, overlooking Freeway's own performance would be criminal. His freewheeling, high-octane flow continues to contribute as much musicality as his producers' beats, but on tracks like Walk With Me, he displays the ability to tighten or toughen it when necessary. Free's ability to effortlessly transition between the wide range of his producers' beats is commendable, and his hardcore and introspective bars are equally potent.

Armed with sharpened lyricism, precise technique and a capable army around him, Freeway makes Free At Last one of the better albums you'll hear this year, particularly on the major level. Furthermore, he joins Roc-A-Fella big homies Jay and Kanye with standout albums in '07. What is that they say? The Roc is in the building...

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