North Philly's Freeway is back in the fast lane

Posted: February 12, 2010

Leslie Pridgen, better known to fans of hip-hop as Freeway, is arguably the best rapper to emerge from this city in the past decade. The North Philadelphia native's unique voice, unorthodox flow and flawless depictions of street life have earned him critical praise and commercial success.

Initially signed to Jay-Z's Roc-A-Fella Records label and part of the Beanie Sigel-led State Property collective, Free made an undeniable mark on the hip-hop landscape with his 2003 debut, "Philadelphia Freeway."

Hailed as an instant classic, the disc went gold and built the MC a fan base with a steady appetite for new material.

However, fans would have to wait five years for their second fix, 2007's "Free At Last." The record was pushed back due to Jay-Z's departure from Roc-A-Fella Records and the subsequent infighting that went on between him and co-founder Dame Dash.

When the dust finally settled and "Free At Last" was released, it didn't reach the commercial success of his debut, but critics and fans hailed it as one of the best albums of that year.

Three years later, Freeway is preparing to release his third studio effort, "The Stimulus Package." The album marks not only his first release on the independent Rhymesayers Entertainment label but also his first helmed by one producer.

Handling the beats on the project is Jake One, a West-Coast veteran who has produced for everyone from 50 Cent and Busta Rhymes to MF Doom and Little Brother.

Fans of Freeway's intricate lyrics and Jake One's soulful beats will have plenty to look forward to when "Stimulus Package" hits store shelves Tuesday. Previewing the album, this writer found it to be, without a doubt, the strongest collection of material either artist has released.

As Free prepared for the release, and a party Monday at the Trocadero Theater, we grabbed a few minutes with him to discuss how he linked with Jake One, the possibilities for a State Property reunion and his plans for 2010 and beyond.

What made you decide on the name "The Stimulus Package" for this album?

I feel as though our whole operation is hip-hop recovery. We want to bring back the real hip-hop to the forefront. That's why we call it "The Stimulus Package." We're stimulating hip-hop.

How did you originally hook up with Jake One?

I did some work with Jake One on my last project, "Free At Last," and I also did some work with him on his last album, "White Van Music." The chemistry was there. And after those albums, he continued to send me music and I kept knocking songs out, so we were like, "let's do an album together," and we made it happen.

In the past you worked with a number of different producers on each project. How was it working with just one?

It was cool. It was exciting. He did a good job with the production and everything turned out crazy.

What was it like working with Rhymesayers in contrast to Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam?

It's more intimate. I feel as though Rhymesayers worked closer with me on the project and were more hands-on with things. Def Jam is different from that.

On the album, you shouted out to the Roc-A-Fella and your State Property family frequently, and had tracks featuring Sparks, Young Chris and Beanie Siegel as well. Is this the sign of another State Property album in the future?

I mean, hopefully we can get it done. Right now there's no plans, but hopefully with projects like this, there will be a push forward for us to do another State Property project.

How did some of the other collaborations come together?

I just reached out to them and they showed the love. I bumped into Birdman in Miami, him and my man Cee Lo. I told them I needed them on the album and [they were] like, let's do it. I reached out to Raekwon because I had actually done some work on a project of his, and then he did that with me. Everybody from State Property, you know that's family, so it's all love.

What was your favorite song on the album?

I like the whole thing, man. It's a body of work that needs to be together. The way it flows together, everything fits perfect.

On "Throw Your Hands Up" you pay homage to a number of influential hip-hop artists. Who would you say has been the most influential in your career?

I used to like Naughty [By Nature]. I used to like Trech a lot. I used to love Dres from Black Sheep. Just their flows, the different flows you know? They really inspired me.

Tell us about your tour plans?

We've got a couple of things in the works. First we're gonna start with album release parties. We've got [them] in Philly, Boston and New York. Then we're going to take it from there.

What can fans expect from Freeway in 2010 and beyond?

I don't even know right now. Right now I can't see past "Stimulus Package." We're just trying to make that successful. Then we're going to figure out what's the next move ... I'm definitely still working. I'm already 50 songs in toward the next project, so whatever that is, I'm going to be ready.

"Stimulus Package" release party, with Freeway and Jake One, plus Meek Millz and Rhymesayers artist Brother Ali. Trocadero Theatre, 1003 Arch St., 8 p.m. Monday, $14, 215-922-5483, www.thetroc.com.

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