What blasted place have we arrived at as a culture when the worst part of a Kid Rock album is the lack of rapping? On Born Free, Kid Rock has become Grown Man Rock, setting aside the bombastic mélange of hip-hop, metal, country, and bad taste that made his name a permanent fixture on the asses of strippers across this great land. Now Kid has taken on the earnestly populist guise of the singer-songwriter. Who better to assist him in this transformation than Rick Rubin, the go-to guru of gritty naturalism for aging male rock stars? Rubin gives Born Free an appropriate air of hard-fought “maturity” that suits a man ready to put on a cleaner, more adult-looking white undershirt.
Similar to how Rubin took the cheesy schmaltz (and therefore much of the fun) out of Neil Diamond in the process of turning him into a downtrodden troubadour, there’s something vital missing from the contemplative Kid Rock of Born Free. With the pyrotechnics put away, it’s even more thunderously obvious that Kid has absolutely nothing to say. Dozens of rock clichés gave their lives so that Born Free could exist, whether it’s livin’ “wild like a stallion” on the title track or workin’ for the weekend on “God Bless Saturday.” (Since this is a Rubin production, Kid also slips in numerous references to starin’ down ol’ Father Time.)
On the thoroughly depressing “Care,” Kid Rock confesses that, contrary to popular belief, he can’t walk on water; he’s allied with Jon Stewart, tuning out “the screaming on the left” and “yelling on the right” because “the least that I can do is care.” (Yep, that’s definitely the least you can do, Kid.) The obligatory Sheryl Crow duet “Collide” (a bald re-write of the duo’s hit “Picture”) is tolerable by comparison, and Kid’s strained falsetto on “For The First Time (In A Long Time)” is almost daring. But the brain-dead, butthead swagger that’s made him a dive-bar favorite is sorely missing on Born Free. A Kid Rock that rocks with his cock kept respectfully in his pants is not Kid Rock at all.