I’m an OG in the hip-hop album review game. Believe it or not, my first review for the Booth...
DJBooth Album Review
When I first heard Ortiz, on his quasi-debut effort The Brick Bodega Chronicles, I compared him to Lebron in high school, saying his ceiling was so high he could become the next greatest rapper alive. Over the next couple years that kind of hyperbolic praise began to look overstated (to put it mildly) as his deal with Aftermath fell apart and he struggled to establish himself as a solo artist. And then, much to my relief, he linked up with some other hip-hop outsiders, formed Slaughterhouse, signed to Shady Records and is once again widely considered one of the best microphone controllers in the game. Talent has a way of winning in the end.
It’s in that context that Ortiz’ full length, Free Agent, drops. An album that’s been delayed more times than a flight out of NYC in January, and was accidentally leaked last winter by Amazon (oops). Given his quickly climbing status anticipation for the now ironically titled Free Agent was high. Unfortunately, it doesn’t nearly deliver. Instead of feeling like a triumphant celebration, like an arrival, the album often feels more like an obligation, an album he felt like he had to release primarily for the sake of releasing an album. It’s dope, but you can’t help but feel like it could have been so much doper.
Let’s start with the good news, namely Call Me. If Ortiz has learned anything since his Bodega days its how to make easily accessible singles without compromising his identity. Of course it helps when he’s got someone like Novel, his Defying the Predictable partner, behind him. With Novel providing both the hook and production Joell has the space to let his humorous, everyman side shine, and instead of making him soft, the expanded subject matter only makes him human. But it’s far from all sweet reminiscing on Free Agent. Battle Cry, built around yet another stellar beat from Just Blaze, is a glimpse into the greatness that Joell is capable of as he displays both an on point flow – “I’m from where the cut throats cut coke / cause school ain’t cut it they cut out to puff smoke” and clever punchlines – “Play a beat and I’ll show you why I’m the head honcho / y’all gettin away with murder like the white Bronco.” From his more deeply narrative work on Good Man Gone to his unrestrained aggression on Put Some Money On It, there’s no arguing the man’s a complete emcee.
While waiting for Free Agent to drop Ortiz was absolutely prolific, dropping not only a full Slaughterhouse album but a handful of mixtapes and dope one-off tracks almost daily. It’s that kind of consistency that had me declaring him the best rapper in Slaughterhouse, but on the album his constant flood of music works against him. I would have been far more impressed by Cocaine…if I hadn’t heard his absolutely incredible Devil in a Blue Dress freestyle. Same goes for Finish What You Started, which I can’t help but wish contained the same high caliber flow he used on 80’s Baby. And what happened to Project Boy, the DJ Premier single that was originally intended for Free Agent? Frankly, I don’t know if there’s anything as good as Project Boy here. That constant stream of releases have helped make the man the force he is today, but strictly in terms of this album he’s his own worst enemy. Frankly, I’ve heard better from Ortiz.
Like Mos Def’s True Magic, Free Agent will go down as a transitional album, a project that needed to drop to get from point A to point B, but that everyone but the most loyal fans will eventually forget about. Then again, I could be wrong. Lord knows I’ve been wrong before.
DJBooth Rating - 3.5 Spins
Written by Nathan S. on 02/22/11
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