03 sounds exasperated as he exhales into the phone receiver. “This probably my last lil’ tape where it’s gon’ have this sound,” he says at the end of “Bigga Rankin Intro,” a sentence that feels like an unclenching jaw. The sinister thud of Mike Free’s beat has faded out at this point, somewhere between 03 paying tribute to the rappers who have recently died — a list that’s achingly long — and his shooing away of the prison guard who keeps interrupting the recording. Three days after the surprise release of Free 03, the mixtape this song lives on, and four and half years after going into the pen, 03 was let out from the Texas penitentiary on parole. He’d been serving a 20 year bid on drug and firearm possession charges, neither offense a violent crime. The combination of 03’s unexpected mixtape drop and his release from prison was a beautiful sigh of relief for rap fans; good news for people who’ve come to expect the worst.
Cheeto’s jail phone intro doesn’t really set up the themes of the tape as much as promise a thunderous return; “when I get back we gotta speak on the pain,” he continues. The rest of Free 03 doubles down on that promise, thumbing through his rolodex of styles to remind us all what he’s capable of, and how he’s the true pioneer of the melodic rap dominating the sound today. Considering he reportedly recorded around 3,000 songs before starting his sentence, Free 03’s grab bag mentality makes sense. The three new songs (“Today,” “Hype,” “If I Die”), all of which 03 recorded while behind bars, make the case that his technical proficiency and preternatural songwriting chops remain intact, if not sharper than ever. The tracks recorded prior to his bid move effortlessly from syncopated Southern California slink to manic Atlanta-inspired trap to silken sex jams. But no matter the subject, it always feels as though Greedy’s shoulders are up by his ears, eyes darting to keep every exit in sight.
On “WOW,” while people jam to his music at the skating rink, he’s scanning faces, sure someone taking laps is waiting for him to get too comfortable. After spending the first verse and bridge of “Buss Down” presumably wooing a woman with promises of commitment, the chorus devolves into a swirl of overlapping, anxious voices. When it resolves into the second verse, he immediately wonders who he can trust.
This is what makes 03’s music so vibrant; everything crackles with a viciously paranoid energy, even when jubilant. If you were to only hear the incredibly catchy chorus of “Pourin” with no other context, you’d think 03 was an R&B genius. If you’d only heard the nerve-shredding Three 6 Mafia staccato of “Today,” you wouldn’t know he could craft earworms like “I Can’t Control Myself.” The fact that he was able to stack thousands of songs that kaleidoscope off into so many directions — and to do it at such a high level – is astonishing.
Mike Free, a South Central native and protege of DJ Mustard, provides a soundscape that matches 03’s versatility. His beats rumble and shudder, full of skittering hi hats and enveloping bass. Free rarely sounds like his mentor, save for the glowing synth bounce of “I Can’t Control Myself” and the gooey pulse of “WOW,” which vaguely recalls Rihanna’s “Need You.” Instead, Free often takes cues from the gritted-teeth staredowns FOREVEROLLIN supplies to EST Gee and CEO Trayle (“Took A Little Minute,” Hype”). “Drop Down” mines the flute-led trap Future’s “Mask Off” inspired back in 2017. None of this sounds derivative, though; as disparate as the sounds can be, they play like the experiments of one distinct producer. When paired with Cheeto’s caffeinated writing and freewheeling delivery, Free’s prismatic production feels like the right match.
At the time of this writing, 03 has transitioned to a halfway house, where he’ll live for up to another six months. Based on his previous output, it’s likely we’ll start getting a deluge of new music, a lot of which will probably surpass Free 03. But this tape will occupy a special place in Greedy’s massive discography, marking the moment that he gained not only his freedom from prison, but regained his freedom of expression. What he was able to accomplish before his time in prison, as well as during, is staggering. Free 03 serves as both a reminder and assurance of 03’s unrivaled talent.