Philadelphia Freeway

Connections matter in all walks of life, but they're crucial in major-label rap, which increasingly resembles an elite fraternity where each new member has to be sponsored by an existing superstar. Fabolous and Freeway both have powerful friends who played pivotal roles in their rapid ascent to fame. Fabolous is the protégé of mix-tape dynamo DJ Clue, who records for Jay-Z's Roc-A-Fella records–and who, like Fabolous, boasts more money than respect. Freeway made a startling impression on "1-900-Hustler" (the best track on Jay-Z's underrated Roc La Familia), and enjoys the ringing endorsement of both Jay-Z and Roc-A-Fella labelmate Beanie Sigel. Both Fabolous and Freeway rap about the streets, but where Freeway's strangled voice and tortured delivery convey gut-bucket desperation even when he's rapping about the good life, Fabolous sounds like a baby-faced Total Request Live star even when he's promising bloody murder. The latter boasts some formidable strengths, most notably cocky charisma and a gift for clever turns of phrase, but his weaknesses are even more glaring: While a delight on guest appearances, he has yet to prove that he can construct memorable songs, let alone a solid album. Fabolous may not be in Jay-Z's league lyrically, but as a conspicuous consumer, he's poised to give the Roc-A-Fella big shot a run for his money. Of course, anyone can rap about cars, women, and flashy jewelry, so rap's truly ambitious crass materialists have been forced to specialize. Accordingly, Fabolous references throwback jerseys often enough on his second album, Street Dreams, to arouse suspicion that he's collecting kickbacks from the retro garment industry. He even devotes one of the album's bonus tracks (the bluntly titled "Throw Back") to delineating which throwback jersey he wears in which city. The song, like Nelly's similarly monomaniacal tribute to his favorite sneakers ("Air Force Ones"), is more notable for its obsessive consumerism than for its musical quality. Fabolous' street dreams have a facile charm, but on his overlong, underwhelming sophomore album, they're strictly secondhand and mostly second-rate. Where Street Dreams employs the usual production-by-committee approach, Freeway's debut benefits from the chemistry between the rapper and hitmaker Just Blaze, who produced Cam'ron's inescapable "Oh Boy" and 11 of the 16 songs on Philadelphia Freeway. Freeway has already scored a major hit with "What We Do," a Blaze production that boasts a sampled vocal hook to rival the monster that powered "Oh Boy," alongside deft turns from Jay-Z and Sigel. Jay-Z returns on "You Got Me," a bonus track so strong that not even Mariah Carey's signature screeching can ruin it, while Sigel adds his gruff presence to "Life," another highlight. Nelly, Nate Dogg, and Faith Evans add still more star power, but a steady supply of big-name guests and Roc-A-Fella-affiliated up-and-comers doesn't detract from the purity of Freeway and Blaze's vision. The rapper shares Sigel's gruff soul-of-the-gutter sensibility, but proves surprisingly adept at poppy dance-rap on "Flipside," which features Blaze doing his best Timbaland impression. Roc-A-Fella's heavy hitters play a crucial role in Philadelphia Freeway's success, but Fabolous' disappointing Street Dreams proves that while powerful friends can attract famous guests, they don't guarantee high quality.

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