Freeway has made a career out of being a fullback on the mic. When the Philly Freezer is at his best, he’s running down field, knocking lines out with a bent shoulder and a stiff arm. His voice is rough while his flow is weighty and full of an earnest intensity that seems to be leaving him gasping for breaths.
So when the hard-working rapper starts to sing/rap about halfway through “Right Back”, the opening track of his fourth and newest LP Diamond in the Ruff, the tone is set by a strangely awkward first foot. And, at times, it’s one the album struggles to shake. This continues on “All the Hoods”, a lethargic radio-crossover throwaway finding Freeway repeating, “I deliver like chicken and gravy” as if that’s something the listener should be in awe of. While the street tales of “Hottest Akhi” get the blood pumping, the song feels recycled and mixes weird non-sequiturs that leaves you scratching your head instead of rapping along.
But let’s get something straight here: Freeway still sounds as good on the mic. Despite the slow start, things really begin to hit on Diamond in the Ruff halfway through the LP. The Just Blaze-produced “Early” showcases Freeway in the pocket, full of swaggering character. This continues on the jazzy throwback-beat from Needlz on “Ghetto Streets”. While on “Numbers”, Freeway goes in on a feverish, synth-heavy beat with longtime collaborator Neef Buck. This is followed by the solid lead single “Jungle“, a track full of distorted keyboard horns and clink-clack bass along side squealing synthesizers, that has Freeway sounding volatile and confrontational, apexing with the menacingly playful chorus of “my hood push birds like Alfred Hitchcock.”
Much like the title suggests, there are gems to be found here, but also a fair amount of fat to cut through. At times, the album’s transitions are jarring and the focus is lost (or completely absent). For newcomers to Freeway, the album might at times sound refreshingly punchy, but for those familiar with his catalog, you will notice that things are also starting to sound like retreads of past work. Then again, there something to be said for not changing what works. Diamond in the Ruff isn’t Freeway’s best album, it’s far from a career misstep.