It’s been more than 11 years since Freeway’s first album, Philadelphia Freeway, propelled his charismatic delivery into the marketplace. Yet despite his waning relevance, I’ll never again pass up a chance to hear him in hopes of witnessing another semblance of that initial enthusiasm. His debut represents the iconic Roc-A-Fella releases from the label’s early days, a staple of nascent-2000s hip-hop. Thanks to the Jay Z cameos and a production landscape populated primarily by Kanye and Just Blaze, Philly Free seemed poised to become one of the Roc’s biggest successes. Freeway’s voice had this infectious, higher-register magnetism, and he seemed most deserving of the platform at the time (unlike some of the filler on the Roc roster — read: Memphis Bleek).
After moderate commercial success, however, he experienced a spiritual crisis and went on The Hajj to Mecca. Now, over a decade and only one major label album later (two others, indie releases, gained little attention or criticism), he’s teamed up with Oakland emcee The Jacka, which seems like a harmonious pairing given that both are Muslim, in their late 30s and about 10 years removed from their most commercially successful work.
Unsurprising for two artists tightly tied to their neighborhoods, much of the fifteen tracks are in service of documenting street life and struggle. Freeway and Jacka have an innate ability to resonate with their listeners as they navigate that territory, highlighting the urgency of topics such as street violence and drug trafficking. There’s a sense of authority gained when one has endured a similar struggle, and that powers much of the album, especially on songs like the reggae-influenced and Freddie Gibbs-assisted “Cherry Pie.”
There are plenty of other standouts, many of which include cameos from other high-end lyricists. Cormega plays philosopher on “Write My Wrongs,” a gloomy-synth-laden beat where all three emcees feel right at home; Killer Mike joins for the breezy, jazz-inspired “Sunnah Boys,” where his calculated flows and punctuated raps blossom alongside one of Free’s most enlivened performances on the project.
While some of the varying sonic styles are welcome — there’s the expectant sex song, “Shuckin’ & Jivin’,” and the high-pitched jazz that powers “Just Remain — obvious attempts at creating an anthemic track feel ill-advised, which drastically hamper the album’s built-up rhythm. On “Dying To Try Me,” a braggadocious track with energetic, almost squealing synths, Freeway raps, “… and all the broads pee-pee when they see me.” On the next track, “One More Time,” they sample the Daft Punk song of the same name — a song that even predates Philadelphia Freeway by a few years. Though the improved bass on the production provides it a nice thud, Free and Jacka suddenly sound remarkably out of place, and as their staccato-rapped back-and-forth chorus continues to repeat, that sense of authority seems to all but vanish, and all of a sudden you realize how distant they’ve become from the pulse of culture, that it’s no longer 2003 and that their time in the public eye is all but fading to memory.
3.5 out of 5
You can purchase Highway Robbery iTunes.