There’s a poignant moment at the beginning of “Greatness,” the second song on Freeway’s fourth studio album, Diamond In The Ruff. Before the beat drops and Vivian Green’s triumphant vocals float through the speakers like renewing incense, an audio clip of Muhammad Ali giving an interview ahead of his 1974 bout with George Foreman drops. “I’m better now than I was when you saw that 22 year old undeveloped kid running from Sonny Liston,” says the former boxing heavyweight champion. “I’m experienced now. Professional. Jaw’s been broke. Been lost. Knocked down a couple times.”

Now, it’s dishonest to portray a time when Free was Hip Hop’s undisputed King of the Ring. Switching obligatory sports metaphors, he was more like a lyrical James Worthy during The Roc’s high octane heyday. But the prelude resonates as righteously in the broader context of Freezer’s career. 2003’s Philadelphia Freeway is absolutely his most commercially known body of work, but through experience, artistically he’s on a higher level now. With 2007’s Free At Last – and his critically praised Rhymesayers release, The Stimulus Package (with Jake One) – Freeway has stitched together a decade’s worth of quality full-lengths, all while weathering the breakup of Roc-A-Fella Records, the trials of life, and a new free agent status. Creatively and contextually, for the most part, Diamond In The Ruff continues that streak.    

Free’s Babygrande Records debut is loaded with great songs – enough to garner worthy purchase status. He gets earnestly inspirational without crossing into hokey-territory on “Wonder Tape” and “Dream Big.” He kicks a soliloquy of unity on “Right Back” (featuring Marsha Ambrosius), imploring a type of religious tolerance unseen during this election cycle (“Some Jew and some Muslim and some Christian / One nation under God / We gonna make a way / They tried to build a Masjid next to Ground Zero / Y’all need to stop being weirdos / Let them people pray”). The Mike Jerz-produced “No Doubt” and “Numbers” (produced by Sonny Dukes, featuring an awesome appearance by Neef Buck) are natural forays into Rap music’s current ratchet-friendly era. And “Sweet Temptation” is not only timeless, but one of the best songs Free’s ever made. The second verse is personal and touches on the conflicting dichotomy between player-status and manhood. The first boasts this album’s most addictive stanza:      

“I’m a Muslim not a banger / But / If you want danger I can definitely situate that / ASAP / I’m just tryna come up / I was tryna lay back / But drug money ran out / Then niggas tried to run up / But we had one up / Left them niggas done up / They snitched about money and lawyer fees had to pay that / Wish I would’ve knew that / Probably would’ve fell back / Tough guys: the new rats / Where they do that? / On top of that, niggas with tight slacks is the new Rap / I’m bout to grab a plane ticket to Africa and move back.”

Through the first 11 tracks on Diamond In The Ruff, Freeway is near flawless, showcasing an array of styles and fresh patterns while refusing to peddle shallow perspective. And then, over the course of the final five songs, the album nearly falls off a cliff. The Bink! produced “All The Hoods” is not only redundant following “Dream Big” and “Wonder Tape,” but uncomfortably close to cheesy. Metaphors like “Call us Dominoes Pizza cause we bring it,” feel fatigued, for example. The brooding “Hottest Akhi” sounds lifeless on the same project as “The Thirst.” “Money Is My Medicine” is the only song suffocated by cliche, “Jungle” is supremely skippable, and “Lil Mama” feels like “Show Me What You Got’s” (by Jay-Z) C-team cousin. None are completely awful individually. But together – in a row, and as the closing run – they distract from an otherwise impressive outing. Switching to another obligatory sports metaphor, it’s like watching a pitcher throw a shutout through eight innings, give up five runs in the ninth, and still come away with the win. It’s a victory nonetheless, but it was so close to being so much more.