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Freeway on His New Album and Being Caught in a Jay-Z–Beanie Sigel Beef Sandwich

Freeway, the Philadelphia rapper best known for a tufting beard mandated by his Sunni Muslim faith and a distinct squeal of a flow, made his national debut in the fall of 2000 with a verse on Jay-Z’s “1-900-Hustler” alongside his city-mate Beanie Sigel. For roughly the next half-decade, Freeway and Beans would be the lesser planets orbiting the star of Jay, their perma-gruff hood mentalities acting as counterbalance to the increasingly cosmopolitan airs of their benefactor.

In 2003 Freeway released his debut, Philadelphia Freeway, a focused street-rap album largely produced by Roc-a-Fella Records’ star in-house producer Just Blaze, with notable contributions from Kanye West (then still a year away from his own debut, The College Dropout). Preceded by the classic single “What We Do,” the album received sterling reviews and saw respectable sales numbers, eventually going gold. But in the four years it took Freeway to release his sophomore effort, Free at Last, all momentum had been sapped out of his career.

During that downtime, Freeway underwent the Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca called for by Islam, and subsequently spoke publicly of his troubles reconciling his music with his faith. Jay-Z’s split with his longtime Roc-a-Fella partner Dame Dash, which left the label in a weakened state, also affected his career. By late 2007, when Free at Last was released around the same time as Sigel’s The Solution, the one-time cronies seemed like afterthoughts and their latest releases halfhearted fulfillments of their contracts. Predictably, both albums failed commercially; a few months after their release Jay left Def Jam, Roc-a-Fella’s parent company, officially severing his ties.

Freeway now explains that after Jay-Z left, “I had an option where I could do another album with Def Jam or I could go independent. And I felt like I didn’t really have the support of the people in the building, being as Jay wasn’t there anymore. So I said, 'Let’s do it. Let’s do the independent thing.'” Free went with Rhymesayers Entertainment, the well-regarded Minneapolis indie hip-hop label. His new project, The Stimulus Package, a full-length collaboration with producer Jake One, is out today.

That’s as far as Freeway will go in criticizing his former employee, unlike his buddy Beans, who waged an unprovoked and ultimately ignored public attack on Jay-Z last fall. Free does his best to extricate himself from the situation: “I’m cool with Jay; I’m cool with Beans. I felt as though we could have gotten a bigger push for the albums that we dropped [in 2007], but I don’t feel no type of way about it. I’m just working; I’m not sitting around complaining.”

That’s as far as Freeway will go in criticizing his former employee, unlike his buddy Beans, who waged an unprovoked and ultimately ignored public attack on Jay-Z last fall. Free does his best to extricate himself from the situation: “I’m cool with Jay; I’m cool with Beans. I felt as though we could have gotten a bigger push for the albums that we dropped [in 2007], but I don’t feel no type of way about it. I’m just working; I’m not sitting around complaining.”

Pushed to explain Sigel’s behavior, he says, “Beans was on the Roc before me, he was the person that brought me there. Him and Jay had a deeper relationship than I did. Obviously there had to be some kind of buildup, 'cause I know Beans love Jay. I know he do. He got to. All the things they been through together.” Calm and rational, Freeway makes sure nothing can be taken out of context: “I mean, I can’t complain about Jay at all. He gave me that first major co-sign. That first co-sign was enough for me. I don’t got nothing bad to say about him.”

Understandably, Freeway brings the conversation back to his new album. He praises Jake’s throwback, soul-sampling production (“His beats challenge me. They make me want to work”) and carefully boosts the overall result: “It’s the real music that people love, that music that touches your heart.” Asked if he could replicate his earlier radio success if he still had the platform he once did, he says, “Once the album get out there, then I will know. I feel that the music is just as good, though. [And] I just want people to love it. Of course I want them to buy it, too. But I just want them to love it.”

Photo: Arnold Turner/WireImage