I'LL NEVER FORGET the first time my girlfriend popped Philadelphia Freeway into the deck. As I identified the cooing samples from "Don't Cross the Line" flowing out from her truck's speakers, I jerked my head back in disbelief and turned toward this woman I wasn't sure that I knew anymore. "Freeway's in full effect," she rapped along, "and all these bitches want from me is just to hear my rhymes." In that instant, I knew I had to keep this one around.
After all, this was Freeway here, one of my favorite spitters out—no pop star emcee, Freeway's biggest hits were never crossover R&B jams, but rather the grimiest of street smashes, and dedicated to the upliftment of his fellow blue-collar drug dealers (and the families that, unfortunately, had nobody else to depend on). All that, and the unmistakable, high rasp, a tightly controlled, almost pneumatic delivery, and of course, the trademark Philly beard marking his faith as a Sunni Muslim. The guy came into Jay-Z and Dame Dash's Roc-A-Fella dynasty a breathless rookie, dispensing tips to would-be traffickers on "1-900-Hustler"—before delivering the aforementioned debut album, one of the most well-rounded, soulful works the Roc ever produced, laced with names like Bink, Just Blaze, and the Roc's newest upstart, a young producer/emcee by the name of Kanye West.
From jump, Free had the best; but as the dynasty fell to ruin and the champagne stopped flowing down from New York, the Philly Roc-A-Fella contingent fell on hard times, and Free emerged as the hungriest guy left. Ah, hunger—"When the teeth stop showin' and the stomach start growlin'," he once promised, it wouldn't be long until the "heat start flowin'." Delivering on that, Free's relentless grind proved him the most resourceful self-starter of the Roc rappers not named Jay-Z or Kanye—going from hood to hood and coast to coast collaborating and recording nonstop, making the most of his resources and connections. While rolling tape on his second album—Free at Last, in a co-venture with 50 Cent—Free encountered Seattle's then-G-Unit (and now Aftermath) house producer Jake One, who laced him with the Roc kiss-off "It's Over." When Freeway later appeared on two standout tracks on Jake's White Van Music it was apparent that the two had discovered a killer chemistry.
The pair released The Stimulus Package last year, a clinic in the classic rap dynamic of one-emcee-one-producer, the gold standard exemplified by the mighty Gang Starr—whose Guru passed away in April of last year. There then couldn't be a higher testament to their approach than the approval of one DJ Premier, who put Stimulus Package in his top 10 of 2010. Though it came in a beautiful physical version designed to look like an oversized billfold, Stimulus wasn't one of the flashy, overpriced platters that came later in the year from Rick Ross or Waka Flocka Flame—two rappers whose vapid sound Jay-Z and Kanye curiously emulate on their newest single "H.A.M."—but rather a nutritious stew of seasoned meat and potatoes hiphop cooked down to a filling, stick-to-your-ribs consistency. Like really good home cooking, it tends to keep better, and deepen in flavor, the longer it's around. Not that I can cook a lick, but my girl can cook her ass off; and luckily, I know what she likes to listen to while she's making dinner.