Free at Last is the second album from Philadelphia MC Freeway, the second most famous beard-wearer in hip-hop behind Miami kingpin Rick Ross, who shows up here on the mellifluously slick “Lights Get Low.” Ross’s verse is a sign that if anything has improved for Freeway in the four years since his 2003 debut, Philadelphia Freeway, hit the racks on the then-collapsing Roc-a-Fella imprint, it’s the quality of his rolodex. It also provides a guide to listening: follow the cameos. Freeway is still nothing more than a well-connected hype man, whose unique background and personal travails do nothing to improve a rap style based on vapid clichés and brazen unoriginality.
Besides the hit “What We Do,” which featured Freeway’s long-time friend Beanie Sigel and mentor Jay-Z, Philadelphia Freeway was a forgettable compilation of wasted Just Blaze- and Kanye-produced beats; Freeway tried to do it big with help from Nelly, Snoop Dogg, and Mariah Carey, but he just couldn’t fit the mold of a Top 40 popper. Now Freeway wants us to know he is a rapper’s rapper. In addition to Jay and 50 Cent, who co-executive produced Free at Last, the line-up is significantly harder: Scarface, Jadakiss, Busta Rhymes, and of course, Ross. Freeway boldly quotes Wu-Tang in the first two lines of the album, on the flute-backed, “C.R.E.A.M.”-inspired autobiographical rap “This Can’t Be Real”: “I grew up on the live side, the D.A. crime side/Staying alive was hard as ever.”
Freeway’s flow, with a gruff and arrhythmic emphasis that seems like a cross between Ghostface and Young Jeezy, is hardly dull. It’s what Freeway says that continues to disappoint, and it’s not for lack of subject matter. If it weren’t for the ostentatious beard and the occasional religious reference, you wouldn’t know that Freeway is a devout Sunni Muslim. He made a pilgrimage to Mecca recently and in interviews is quick to mention the inner conflicts arising from his devotion to a religion that expressly prohibits music. He would rather present himself as another gun-carrying party-banger, but he lacks the verbosity, wit, charm, and edge of people who have been playing the complex coke pusher for years. Embarrassing rhymes abound, such as on “Roc-a-Fella Billionaires,” in which Freeway gives a shout-out to Hova’s new product-partnership (Ace of Spades champagne) and concocts a vision of a bubbly-sipping, glock-toting, slipper-wearing man of faith. In other words, an utter clown.