Make no mistake: Kid Rock’s songwriting has only rarely soared above average. His career was launched with a rap-metal guilty pleasure in “Bawitdaba” and peaked sometime during 2008 after his butchery of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama” forged the execrable “All Summer Long.” Upon learning that Born Free, the Detroit rapper-cum-rockabilly’s eighth studio effort, would lean uniformly toward the campfire melodies of the latter, it seems as though this could be the final nail in the coffin for Rock’s self-aggrandizing pimp persona. Of course, true to his track record, Rock’s lyrics still manage to reek of bogus angst while his music is watered down to appeal to the lowest common denominator.
This is an album riddled with clichés and fraught with unconvincing cries of rebellion, where he rewrites his younger years (which, going by his first LP, you could have sworn was neck-deep in Michigan’s underground hip-hop scene) to fit his newfound rockabilly image. On “When It Rains,” Rock sings about being 17 and “hanging out by the river bend, singing our favorite songs,” though history tells us he was “cruising through town…scoping for a big butt slut” to “suck [his] dick and put [his] balls in her mouth.” Born Free is an overt attempt to curtail the rowdy sexist image and present a more affable Kid Rock to the record-buying public, so it’s no coincidence that this is the singer’s first album not to bear a parental advisory sticker.
Regardless of the album’s agenda, though, the songwriting is poor: “God Bless Saturday” has Rock lamely talking us through a nine-to-five working week and celebrating the weekend, while “Times Like These” is a soppy love letter to his hometown in which he expresses his affinity for Detroit’s rivers, forests, and churches. Born Free desperately panders to all of country music’s traditional staples and themes, but fails to land a memorable couplet throughout its hackneyed hour.
It’s not so much the shift in style that hampers Born Free, but rather the trite subject matter and gormless storytelling that Rock so keenly adopts. Granted, Rock hasn’t got much of interest to say, but the one saving grace about his transformation is his vocals. He barks his lines through an endearingly raspy set of lungs with an everyman’s charm, and sounds so accomplished you could argue his performances here ranks above anything he’s done before.