All right. Let's get all of the boring stuff out of the way first thing: no, of course I'd never heard of this dude before, and no, of course I wasn't excited about this record (especially when I saw that Freeway was a member of Beanie Sigel's crew). The Rhapsody reviewer's blurb deflated my spirits even further when they mentioned that he uses first track "Right Back" featuring Marsha Ambrosius to "protest against a planned mosque near the World Trade Center site", which they note is an unusual subject given "his rep as a full-throttled Philly rapper". Super, I thought, some political BS and then a bunch of guns, money, and hoes. It's so good to be me! Then, of course, I hit play on the thing and discovered that either the reviewer or I must be on some powerful-ass pharmaceuticals, because after a couple of thorough listens I disagree with them SO WHOLEHEARTEDLY that the discrepancy could only be explained by mind-altering drugs. Or aliens, I guess, but that seems far less likely.
During my first listen to the album (and mostly due to my review-based trepidation), I was more focused on collecting the Mega Blocks from the floor than the lyrics, so although I did hear some vaguely political stuff, I didn't listen too closely. I did, however, notice a distinct lack of excessive swearing, woman-bashing, and drug and gun talk, and between that and the hook-friendly, often guest choruses and clever lyrics I managed to pick out through the cleaning (like on "Money Is My Medicine", where Freeway raps "I'm a money addict/Always gonna have it/Y'all can't grab it/Like Trix teasin' the rabbit"), I actually found myself enjoying the record. Finally, I took the time to sit my ass down and Google Freeway, at which point I discovered that he himself is a Muslim who has struggled to reconcile his faith with his music (per this interview on Hiphop DX), which, if the Rhapsody reviewer is right about the mosque thing, puts him in league with Ann Coulter for supreme hatred of his own kind (completely unrelated: there's another interesting interview here, with his "top 5 craziest travel experiences"). Confused, I queued it up again and took the time to jot down the lyrics in question, which Freeway spits over the opening track's spare beat, piano, and faint static: "Some Jew and some Muslim and some Christian/One nation under God we gonna make a way/They tryin' to build a masjid next to Ground Zero/Y'all need to stop being weirdos, let them people pray". I'm still open to the possibility that I'm the crazy one here, but "let them people pray" sounds about as far from protest as a dude can get.
It was at this juncture that I decided that Rhapsody must have a crack stash in the back room, a fact which called into question the rest of their review as well. Let me repeat that I've never heard any of Freeway's other albums, so he may indeed rock a big-pimpin' persona on EVERYTHING ELSE HE'S EVER DONE and I wouldn't know it, but my second listen proved that on this particular record, besides his unchanging, angry-sounding delivery, nothing else about his message is particularly hardcore. Sure, he drops the occasional gun reference and sexy-time shout-out (like on "No Doubt" where he raps "A white friend with her/She look like she/Fergalicious/We about to go and make a Oreo cookie" over a drum-and-vocal-blip driven beat), but for the most part, a line from "Sweet Temptations" featuring Nikki Jean and a beguiling chorus is an apt description for the whole album, when he says "I'm a Muslim not a banger/But if you want danger I can definitely situate that". And his self-identification as something (anything!) other than a "banger" frees him up to escape beyond traditional (and boring) rap boundaries and explore other subjects instead, a freedom we see on tracks like "Early" ("If I take you on a date we gotta do it/Early/Y'all -- runnin' late I get that paper/Early") and standout "Numbers" featuring Neef Buck ("Lotto we blow numbers/Mathematician we know numbers/We got Range Ro numbers/Spend that get more numbers/Been here for ten winters/We'll be here ten more summers"). He even praises a girl's personality instead of her ass on "TRUE" featuring Wale (the lady in question is "sweet as Nantucket Nectar"). I know - weird, right?
Musically, the album is also pretty decent. Freeway sticks to a basic formula on most of the tracks (a drum machine that gets hyper near the chorus, some drawn-out background chords, and a guest artist to deliver the hook), but he varies the texture enough to keep the listener's interest. It's neither a big-budget production nor a snooze-fest, and his subject matter actually brings something new to the table. And I'll admit it: by my second listen, I was even rapping along to some parts (I'm a super good rapper, y'all, ask the poor friend of mine who once listened to me rap every track on The Eminem Show during a long drive without a radio signal). Don't believe me? Then check out my 2002 picture from the drive in question, complete with Eminem hat. Awww, that's right. If only that hat could talk.