Freeway

Month of Madness Mixtape

(Self-released; 2008)

By Colin McGowan | 13 January 2009

For all its post-Biggie flossing, draped in glaciers and platinum dentistry, rap has developed into a remarkably blue-collar occupation as of late. The Weezy Era has come to fruition through Wayne’s commitment to hitting the studio on a ludicrously frequent basis—churning out free mixtapes for the masses to share and hopping on damn near every prominent hip-hop single of the past three years—and it seems his contemporaries have taken extensive notes. Young Chris, citing he’s “up there with Lil Wayne and Juelz Santana,” made a push for prominence with a verse-per-day campaign throughout November; Killer Mike followed the unmitigated boastfulness of I Pledge Allegiance To The Grind Vol. 2 (2008) with a weekly freestyle series; the Clipse delivered a year-end sucker punch that trumped a majority of proper albums in an attempt to whet anticipation for the forthcoming Till The Casket Drops. If I hadn’t been so hopelessly lethargic during our year-end awards, these three promotions would’ve been the nominees for “Best Usage of the Internet Grind” or some such, but a majority of these attempts at more face time malfunction as cartoonishly as Inspector Gadget’s hat. Another Lloyd Banks mixtape? I’m good, thanks.

Which brings me to Freeway, he of the eternal “What We Do” and Ghostfacely growl. His missives on Philadelphia Freeway (2003) leaned perhaps too heavily on vocal idiosyncrasies as he croaked, rasped, and stumbled his way through verses, grizzly-like in his cadence. The worst were salvaged by sterling production and the odd face-twistingly great line (“If my kids hungry, snatch the dishes outcha kitchen”) could sometimes exemplify a supreme level of potential, a burgeoning knack for unusual diction melded with an undeniable sincerity that permeated the album’s highlights. And then that spark seemed to gasp and extinguish rather quickly: Free apparently got entangled in a major label mess with G-Unit and Roc-A-Fella and Free At Last (2007) spilled out of the womb feet-first two years after Freeway slipped into the neglected peripherals of the public’s consciousness.

But wait, is that smoke emanating from the kitchen? I believe someone left the stove on. There’s a crack joke in there somewhere, and I’m sure Free could mine it capably, but he seems to have something larger clenched in his bearded jaws this go round. Month of Madness, the ostensibly ill-advised track-per-day promotion Freezer carried throughout December, is a sweeping manifestation of self and maybe the most actualizing submission since Drought 3 (2006): Freeway bursting out of the cocoon of obscurity, dishing out knuckle sandwiches and two hour sermons. Where Weezy giddily bastardized the top 40, Freeway farms his own deep stable of producers, his diatribes soundtracked in equal competence by the fluctuating synths of Don Cannon and the sonorous thump of Tryfe’s compositions. Free’s collaborators weave something of a bursting walk-in closet worth of tailor-made suits, each distinct and dapper. Of course, slap designer duds on, say, Keak Da Sneak, and watch him soil it with mustard in mere seconds. Freezer makes these shits sing.

Speaking of: Lord, that flow. The overwhelming gruffness that sufficed but failed to inspire on Free’s previous work has metamorphosed into the equivalent of the night sky, each word placed seemingly wherever it’s pleased to be but deceptively held in place by an invisible, elegant force, every syllable brilliant, intoning on its own the full spectrum of emotion conveyed by the whole. “Straight Madness” is precisely that, scratches and percussion stabbing in and out, one that might beg for an ugly mauling—haphazard automatic weapon fire—but Free dials the delivery down a notch, assassin cadence slashing windpipes, while providing every drop of intensity the beat demands: “Anybody wanna transgress, I will show you how to pop this here / This is Jay-Z’s version of Craig Mack / Drop me from Fade To Black, put the little red laser in ya ear.”

At the center of all this sharp, burbling execution is the naked sobriety of “When I Die,” which smacks of the nostalgia of “Doo Rags” or “I Am, I Be.” Free’s voice sounds battered as he retraces his steps, relating Roc-A-Fella’s disintegration to divorce and the necessity of his fend-for-self worldview. It’s all implied beautifully: loneliness, disenfranchisement, and determination. Reassurance, too. Free, alluding to Barack Obama’s victory, is pleased he finally “got to see the day they let us in (yeh!).” It’s understood that’s enough spiritual sustenance to keep on treading. Back to the grind.

As his encore, the bouncing “So Cold” hums along with the same staunchness as the exercise’s opener, and our host, after unequivocally demolishing all placed before him over the past two hours, ominously proclaims “‘09, you’ll see,” like he hasn’t even shifted into second gear yet. It becomes apparent that, shit, Freeway’s proving every boast in triplicate. Free is stonefaced self-assurance personified about this, letting his glee out in the guttural “yeh!“s that punctuate particularly furious verses, but he knows. He knew before we did that he could go in this diamond-cutter hard, and Month of Madness is that internal drive, spawned from doubt and neglect but clad in glimmering hunks of undiluted color, the breezes of internet accessibility blowing this document to our feet like a ransom note. More importantly in the world of rule #4080, it may serve as the catalyst to get his third full-length into mastering and onto record store shelves.

So this notion, perhaps re-realization, in hip-hop that “I’m a great rapper, and I’m just gonna flat out rap better than everyone else” is a refreshing one. This is the same bit of noise all those neo-Native Tongues rappers were shouting at a number of years ago, only without the finesse or knowledge of nuance this new class of MCs seems to possess in spades. The prospect of where rap is headed in ’09 sends me fluttering on my way like some smitten adolescent because it feels competitive again. Wayne’s debut of his latest lascivious incarnation, “Yes,” concludes a harangue with a triumphant croak, “Bitch I’m the best!” It finally looks like someone might rebut that claim with some legitimacy this year: Dillatroit has been percolating some marvelous artistry for a bit, Jeezy just released the best record of his career, the Cool Kids are wielding their aesthetic with authority, Killer Mike recently hooked up with TI’s Grand Hustle imprint, Big Boi is lurking in the background somewhere, and now Freeway is no longer “that guy who rapped next to Jigga awhile back.” Just shorten that to “next.”

:: myspace.com/freeway