The Top 30 Freeway Tracks of 2009
When Philadelphia rapper Freeway released a song for every day in December 2008 as part of his "Month of Madness" online campaign, it was easy to assume that he was blowing his load and releasing all the material he had for free, in a risky gambit to get some publicity in hip hop's new blog-driven era. After all, in the nearly five years between his 2003 debut album Philadelphia Freeway and the 2007 follow-up Free At Last, his output consisted of one mixtape of all-new material, and a relatively moderate number of guest spots and scattered solo tracks. That Free spent most of his between-album hiatus on a religious pilgrimmage and seriously considering whether to continue his music career is immaterial -- he just hadn't shown an exceptional work ethic up to that point, so it was reasonable to assume those 31 songs would be his big statement for the time being. The fact that they were all songs, many of them with beats by well known producers, and were largely up to the standards of his albums, was impressive, but it wasn't a hugely high profile endeavor, and a lot of the bloggers the campaign was aimed at seemed to feel like it wasn't the smartest move for Freeway.
But then, Free just kept going -- first trickling out frequent freestyles and collabs to the blogs, then dropping a new album, then more songs, then another album, then a mixtape and another mixtape, until in the space of 12 months (from December '08 to November '09), he'd put out by my count over 130 tracks, most of them complete solo songs with original beats and 2 or 3 verses. He was hardly alone, though; a number of rappers had taken what's become thought of as the Lil Wayne career plan, of building buzz by recording and releasing as much music as humanly possible, to absurd extremes in the past year, chief among them Gucci Mane. And it was Gucci who set off the latest arms race with his Cold War series, dropping 3 mixtapes in one day in October. That set off a flurry of copycat projects, with the trend already jumping the shark this month with Gorilla Zoe releasing 28 mixtapes (!) this month. So let's be clear: Freeway isn't making more music than every rapper out there, but I've enjoyed more of his work in the past year than any other rapper. Without getting into a hacky "hip hop is like jazz" thing, I will say that rappers are more like jazz soloists than pop singers or rock bands in terms of productivity. The best of them can walk into a studio without a plan or a thought in their head, listen to what the backing musicians (or pre-programmed beats) are doing, get in front of the microphone for a few takes, and walk out with a completed track or even an album's worth of material in one night -- no demos or drafts or long brainstorming sessions, just instant product. So when they're put into a marketplace alongside pop singers and rock bands that labor over their records over much longer periods of time, their turnaround probably seems more mind-boggling than it is.
Doing a year-end list just to sum up one particularly prolific rapper’s output is a somewhat recent bloggy development, as far as I can tell. The first I can remember is when my former Government Names co-author DK posted the top 30 Bun B features of 2004. Later similar-minded lists included Vibe’s top 77 Lil Wayne tracks of 2007, and about a year ago my friends at So Many Shrimp compiled the 30 best Gucci Mane tracks of 2008 that really set off a lot of coverage of Gucci in ‘09. The difference with those lists and this one, though is that Freeway is not a Southern rapper with a groundswell of regional buzz, just an East coast vet from a once powerful crew that’s still managing to put himself out there as a viable artist, even if he’s probably not winning many new fans. His album with Jake One out next Tuesday, The Stimulus Package, is looking to be his highest profile release of the past couple years, and he’s got a new mixtape, Freelapse, and a collab album with Beanie Sigel, Roc Boys, out this month. Throughout the past year, talk of Freeway signing to Cash Money, with his own Free Money imprint, got thrown around in the press, but I’d be surprised if that ever came to fruition with an actual album release. But clearly, Freeway does have some momentum going forward in 2010, and he may end up releasing as much music this year as he did last year. But I have no illusions about him ‘blowing up’ at this stage in his career, or even becoming a serious underground phenomenon. All I hope for is that people pay him more attention for consistently putting out great music than they’d pay, say, a former groupmate for dissing their old boss.
I will say that I know Freeway isn't the greatest rapper -- his voice is an acquired taste, and he's generally more about flow and feeling than about creative rhymes. And not all of his recent stuff is great, especially the songs with awkward sex talk and/or really half-assed hooks. But I've been fascinated by the guy named Leslie Pridgen with the weird voice and the neckbeard ever since I heard him on "1-900-Hustler" in my brother's car after he bought The Dynasty almost 10 years ago, and he's remained an artist worth actively following well after nearly all his contemporaries fell by the wayside. It'd be tempting to post mp3s of this stuff (not all of it, just a few tracks, since posting a zip file of 200 songs by one of my favorite Roc-A-Fella alumni would be a major dick move), but given the mp3 blog massacre by Blogger over the last few days I'm gonna play it cool and just write about the songs and occasionally provide YouTube links:
1. ”North Philly’s Finest” (YouTube)
A quick soundbyte of Freeway's State Property groupmate Peedi Crakk ("North Philly get it in!") sets up the high energy vibe of my favorite track from "The Month of Madness," with a fast, bleepy beat produced by Cardiak and Free locking into the kick drum pattern with a relentless flow.
2. "Hahahaha" (YouTube)
This Blunt-produced track wasn't on any mixtape and surfaced on some blogs, but it's just incredible, you need to hear it.
3. ”Keep Yo Hands Up (Remix)” featuring Sheek Louch (YouTube)
I was pretty harsh on Philadelphia Freeway 2, Free's 3rd official album, when it was released a few months after "Madness." Mostly I was just annoyed that his weakest project to date was billed as a sequel to my 14th favorite album of the past decade, but all in all it was still a pretty decent record, although the single is still by far the standout, particularly the remix with fellow East coast 3rd-stringer Sheek Louch.
Later in the fall, another independent album was announced called Streetz Is Mine, but this time Free took to YouTube and interviews to decry the album as a 'fake.' Ultimately, though, it was released, and appears to be a complete album of new songs that Freeway willingly made and assembled as an album, so I can only assume he was just mad about his business dealings with the label that released it. It's a shame he publicly denounced this record, too, since it's one of his best releases of '09 and miles better than Philadelphia Freeway 2, ending on a high note with a track that packs enough energy to deserve to be named after a Jason Statham movie.
5. ”When I Rap” (YouTube)
The aforementioned Freelapse mixtape that dropped this month is Free's tribute to Eminem, which seemed like a kind of strange idea out of nowhere, despite the fact that there's nothing new about any rapper being a vocal fan of Eminem. I haven't heard the whole tape yet, but the first leak from it appeared last year on Free's The Calm Before The Storm mixtape, salvaging the beat from an unremarkable Eminem Show outtake and making it a showcase for Free's most dazzling doubletime flow to date. Incidentally, Free appeared on another mixtape also titled The Calm Before The Storm by Twista, who probably deserved to use the title more since it was a prelude to his Category F5 album.
6. ”Freeway’s Beard” (YouTube)
Oddly, months before the announcement of Freelapse, Eminem jokingly referenced Free in a radio freestyle while doing Relapse promotional rounds in the UK, explaining his long absence with “Everyone trying to find me, I disappeared, I was hiding in Freeway’s beard." 6 weeks later, Free surfaced with his response, with producer Phoe Notes looping the line into a hook and Free constructing an entire song out of the ridiculous premise. There's a long tradition in recent years of rappers sampling any MC that mentions them on record, especially if it's a more famous peer, but Free sidesteps the parasitic or sycophantic potential of a track like that by embracing the comedic potential of the line with hysterical results. I could not stop cracking up the first time I heard this: “Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves, so he probably had some slave niggas hidin’ in his/ can’t forget Kenny Rogers, can’t forget the bearded lady, who else can I fathom?/ oh, Grizzly Adams/ it’s so many beards Em could’ve jumped up in and vanished/ but he picked mine, best beard on the planet.”
7. ”Check Check” by Kurupt featuring Freeway (YouTube)
Though a West coast institution as one half of the Dogg Pound, Kurupt originally hails from Philadelphia, and it's great to hear him lock horns with one of Philly's most recognized contemporary rappers on a hard as nails beat that suits them both perfectly. Kurupt may have had one of the busiest and most unappreciated runs in 2009 rap after Free, with a gang of collabs with Snoop, Daz, and DJ Crazey Toones in addition to his classic BlaQKout LP with DJ Quik, and one of those under the radar projects was The Tekneek Files with his brother Roscoe, the record that "Check Check" appears on.
Throughout the year, Freeway hyped up his album with Jake One, The Stimulus Package, but it ultimately ended up getting pushed back to 2010. But it turns out they had enough material for a whole mixtape of Free on more JO tracks, The Beat Made Me Do It, although it kind of sounds like an outtakes collection to me, unfortunately. Still, some really nice laid back tracks on here, including this one, which is pretty much just Free over a mellow soul loop with no drums or anything added to them.
9. ”Rap Spitters” (YouTube)
The Beat Made Me Do It was hosted by Don Cannon, and I was a little disappointed when I found out that it was all Jake One beats and none by Cannon, who I think is probably my 2nd favorite Freeway/producer combination, for cuts like the "Cannon" remix, the Free At Last outtake "Step Back" with Lil Wayne, and several "Month of Madness" standouts, including this one with a killer busy organ line and the kind of driving drums Free always sounds great flowing over.
10. “Move Back” by Sha Stimuli featuring Freeway and Young Chris (YouTube)
My #1 Freeway/producer combination, naturally, is with Just Blaze, who produced nearly all of Free's best known early tracks, including "Roc The Mic" and the bulk of Philadelphia Freeway, but in a way I didn't really become a big fan of Freeway himself until he moved on and proved he could make great music with a large variety of other producers (even if many of them work in the same soul sample vein). Still, it was nice to hear Free and Just on a track for the first time in years for Sha Stimuli's single.
11. "Battle Field" (YouTube)
One of the most dismaying things about the relative lack of media coverage of Free's flurry of music was that his mentor and State Property groupmate, Beanie Sigel, got about a hundred times as much attention last fall when he finally decided to break ranks with their old crew and diss Jay-Z. Free, who appears to still be cool with both sides of the conflict, of course got asked about it constantly, and finally responded with a diplomatic and non-committal rap over a Pat Benatar sample. Beef fans looking for dirt didn't get much out of it, but in a weird way I think this sums up why I like Free, the way he's willing to sidestep the aggro bullshit while still being as honest as possible, although I wish he'd just tell Beans to follow his lead and just make music instead of crying about anyone owing you anything.
12. “Where’s My Opponent” by Beanie Sigel featuring Omilio Sparks and Freeway (YouTube)
Beanie did release a pretty good indie album himself, Broad Street Bully, in September (which, again, got only a fraction of the attention the beef did a few weeks later), and of course the rest of State Prop, which has shown remarkable solidarity considering all the different directions they've gone in since the Roc split, is all over it, including Free on three tracks. This one's by far the best, with each MC ending their verse by snarling "where the fuck is my opponent" in lieu of a chorus.
13. "Get Wit Me" by 100 Grandman featuring Freeway and NOE (YouTube)
100 Grandman is a Baltimore rapper I've covered from time to time on my other blog, Government Names, and last summer I was surprised to see that he hooked up with DJ Drama for his own official Gangsta Grillz mixtape, despite being completely unknown on a national level and only moderately popular on a local level -- I guess the guy has as much money to throw around as his name implies. And he continued to show off his connections by getting Free to guest on one of the tape's best bangers, along with the Baltimore-based Jim Jones affiliate NOE. Really, though, one of my favorite things about this track is hearing Drama shout out Baltimore rappers like Skarr Akbar and Tim Trees at the end. This isn't even Free's first Bmore collab, since he also appeared on Mullyman's 2005 single "All My Heart."
14. "Hustler's Life" featuring Rita Taylor (YouTube)
Amazingly, there were Freeway mixtapes apparently made in '09 that he hasn't gotten around to releasing yet. A few tracks supposedly from one called Free Or Die trickled out to blogs earlier in the year, including this one over a loop from the oft-sampled Teddy Pendergrass classic "Come Go With Me." Toward the end of the track, Freeway keeps ad libbing and playfully singing the "come on over to my place" hook, before asking the engineer to give him some AutoTune to sing it one more time and cracking himself up. There were also a bunch of tracks leaked in '08 from an album called Freedom Of Speech that has yet to surface in its entirety.
15. "The Last 2" by Young Chris featuring Freeway and Beanie Sigel (YouTube)
Another SP posse cut for old time's sake, off Chris's The Network mixtape. Chris, to his credit, has hit the mixtape circuit pretty hard himself, although I just can't take him that serioulsy as an MC -- you ever fuckin' listen to a Young Gunz album? This song is somewhat infamous for featuring the Beanie verse that he re-recorded for "I Go Off" with 50 that everyone then interpreted as being about Jay, despite it first being released way before the beef.
The Next 15:
16. "Get It Started"
17. "Say It" by Termanology featuring Sheek Louch, Joell Ortiz, Saigon, Bun B and Freeway
18. "Straight Madness"
19. "So Romantic"
20. "I'm Philly"
21. "East Coast Love" by Ki featuring Freeway
22. "Let's Get It On" featuring Tek and Jakk Frost
23. "Bank Rollz"
24. "Really Rough Out Here"
25. "My Style" by Dame Grease featuring Sheek Louch, Pusha T and Freeway
26. "It's A Good Day"
27. "Freezin' Hot" by Ice City
28. "Streets Won't Miss 'Em"
30. "Best At It" by Brother Ali featuring Freeway and Joell Ortiz