With more than a decade in the rap game, Freeway still has a hustler's spirit. The Philadelphia native broke into music as one of the flagship members of Jay-Z's Roc-a-Fella Records, and his 2003 debut, Philadelphia Freeway, bowed at No. 5 on the Billboard 200 and has sold 542,000 copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan. After 2007 follow-up Free at Last, and his release from Roc-a-Fella and Def Jam the following year, Freeway took the independent route with 2010's The Stimulus Package with producer Jake One-a precursor to his Babygrande Records debut, Diamond in the Ruff, due Nov. 27.
Freeway, who inked a one-album deal with Babygrande in July with an option to release another LP through the label, says the partnership was a no-brainer because of the artistic freedom. "Me being a free agent, the situation at Babygrande was hard to refuse," says Freeway, who'll also release the album through his Team Early imprint. "I just basically had total creative control. I got to do what I wanted to do, and it was actually a chance for me to establish my imprint. I've been working hard to build my brand, and they gave me that opportunity."
Diamond in the Ruff, which Freeway spent two years recording, features guest appearances from Musiq Soulchild, Marsha Ambrosius and Vivian Green as well as production from Jake One, Bink!, Needlz and Just Blaze, who reunites with Freeway for the first time since helming the bulk of his debut. The LP recalls the gritty, soulful sound of prior albums, which Freeway says was inspired by once again feeling like a young, hungry artist.
Babygrande founder/CEO Chuck Wilson notes that Freeway targets three subcommunities in hip-hop: the streets, his peers and fans from his Roc-a-Fella days. In marketing the LP, Wilson has found that Freeway's diverse fan base made it more difficult to promote. "For someone like Freeway that has this cross-appeal, you have to cast a wider net," Wilson says. "You have to position everything so that none of those subcategories are alienated. The hope is that all the different fans will accept that and buy into that 'agnostic' marketing."
To ramp up anticipation for the album, Freeway released his Freedom of Speech mixtape in October as a gift to fans and made a surprise appearance with Jay-Z at the Made in America festival in Philadelphia in September. Building off the momentum, Babygrande has taken a standard approach to promoting Diamond in the Ruff, plotting radio and media appearances as well as eight to 10 prerelease performances in key markets including New York, Chicago and Atlanta. The label, which placed ads for the album on YouTube and handled street promotion, has leaned on Freeway's interactions with fans on Twitter (@PhillyFreezer, 114,000 followers), Facebook (28,000 likes) and Instagram (66,000 followers), where he actively searches hashtags related to his music and engages in discussions.
Amir Abbassy, who has been the rapper's day-to-day manager since early 2010, says Freeway's engagement with online platforms has only increased his relevance between albums. "This time it's a little different because Free is a lot more active in social media," he says. "Folks that might not necessarily know about him through blogs can go on Instagram and Twitter and know that this guy has a project coming out. I can already see the difference between this and The Stimulus Package."
While Freeway took a few years between albums, he's already at work on a collaborative album with Brother Ali, a sequel to The Stimulus Package and is in talks with Just Blaze and Bink! to record separate full-lengths. Still, he says he's approaching music like it's his first day on the job. "I feel like a rookie and that I'm starting over again," he says. "That's the mentality I have going into the project. I want to keep giving fans good music and keep working. I still have a lot to say."••••