There used to be a time when if you spoke to Freeway – the North Philadelphia rapper, lyricist and producer born Leslie Pridgen – that most of the serious discussion was about the theology of the streets. Free’s devout connection to the Muslim religion, and about how a hard realist writer and MC such as himself was just perfect for Jay-Z who made Freeway one of the first signings to Hova’s Roc-A-Fella dynasty.
Now, 15 years after his debut, “Philadelphia Freeway,” Free has much more on his mind, and tons more to be thankful for, starting with a new album, “Think Free,” that comes out on Tuesday, Aug.7, one day before his 39th birthday, with a celebratory event at FYE Philadelphia Mills on Franklin Mills Circle. “God is good,” says Freeway, softly, on a Saturday morning considering all that he’s been through and made happen, all with positive results.
There’s his Best Beard Cream brand of all-organic tonsorial grooming and health-care products that the “the beard of hip-hop,” co-created three years ago, right on trend-time for the explosion of men’s furry facial hair. “The product line’s going good, and we’re adding new products like shampoo, as well as new scents and flavors for the cream,” he says proudly.
Freeway talks Jay-Z, Donald Trump and new album
Then there’s the most important thing: his health. Since 2015, he’s been dealing with kidney failure, continued dialysis and a dietary, fluid intake and exercise regimen he must adhere to in order to live. Such stricture and discipline is not usually the order of the day for any musician. “I feel good. I mean, I have my days where I’m fatigued, but for the most part, I’m fine. I most definitely had to switch up my eating habits, and push myself to stay active.”
On the track “Wasted,” from his 2016 mixtape “Fear of a Free Planet,” the MC yelled out “You thought it was over?” in triumph of a healthier future. Did he ever wonder if he would be sidelined from the rap game? “Yeah, when I first got diagnosed, I was definitely worried, as I didn’t know to what capacity I was sick, the timing of it all, or how I would feel after dialysis. I learned quick.”
As he got better and felt healthier, the rapper began recording “Think Free,” in 2017, not long after Donald Trump – one of his new album’s subjects – took office. As a Muslim man, and as a concerned American, the president’s stance toward the rapper’s religious freedom comes through loud and clear. “I think Trump’s an idiot,” he says sternly. “I definitely disagree with a lot of the things he says and does. The country was better when Obama was in office. Things were civil with him. He had family values, and was someone you could be proud of, and aspire to be.”
The politics of “The Nation,” and the health issues of “Blood Pressure,” isn’t the only thing on Freeway’s mind. There was much to say and different ways to say them through this new album’s songs that he’s never really said on other records of his past. “I just really wanted to open up,” Free says, frankly. “I’m always interested in how people hear or view my work, and the one thing I’ve heard is that they like what I’m doing, but that I don’t open up, personally. Being that I had a health scare with a lot of things changing in my life I just felt more open to being open with my fans. I touch base on the idea of relationships.”
And once he opened up, he blossomed. “My best stuff is when I’m all-the-way honest. No exaggeration. When I’ve kept it straight in the past – “What We Do is Wrong,” for instance – that was honest. That’s what I was living, dealing with crack. That was real. That’s where my best stuff comes from.”
After recording for several labels within this decade, that he’s back with Jay and his RocNation – especially after the business trouble Free, his pal and fellow rapper Beanie Sigel and their State Property crew had with the Roc-A-Fella label – is just a positive a move as making “Think Free,” itself. Considering that Jay-Z was always about smart, insightful lyricists (which is why he signed those guys in the first place), the move to RocNation is as much a spiritual decision as it is an aesthetic or a business move.
“That’s great, right? When I first signed with Jay, it was exciting. Amazing. I was young and fresh of the block. Signing to a label like his was a dream of mine, and I had accomplished a dream. Now, being able t sign back is mind-blowing. I didn’t think that would ever happen again what with the tension of the past. But the past is past, I stayed true to myself and was a good person, I reached out to Jay, and he was ready. “
Anyone who thought the near-billionaire Jay-Z- the man who once said “I’m not a businessman, I’m a business, man” – was unconnected to streets, only need to see his recent Trayvon Martin documentary project, as well as witness the fruit of his new label signing, Freeway, at his finest.
“Jay’s got his ear to the street like I have my ears to the streets. There’s a lot going on in the world. And it’s a blessing to be able to do it all now, at this level, and at this stage of my career,” says Freeway. “I feel l like a new artist starting over.”