Among their many lessons, all disciples of Gang Starr know that Brooklyn is the Planet. In a lineage that includes Big Daddy Kane, Notorious B.I.G. and Jay-Z, the greatest planetary tour-guide of late has been Cooper Park Housing Projects’ Joell Ortiz. With telescopic lyrics, Ortiz is an every-man that can easily call back to childhood nostalgia, recreate bodega banter and never veers far from his curb-servin’ past as a fully-developed character on the mic. Nothing that the man says appears glamorized or fabricated, and as his Slaughterhouse track record shows, the decade-plus veteran can absolutely obliterate a track with unique flows and dynamic deliveries. Like its title suggests, Free Agent is a farewell to best-kept-secret status and a transition to a championship bid.
Whereas 2007’s stellar debut Brick: Bodega Chronicles was more sparse beats and rhymes, Free Agent is bigger and louder. “Battle Cry” lives up to its name, as the emcee ranks himself in today’s class, and justifies why he’s one of the greatest. If Just Blaze provided Ghostface with the Goliath anthem in 2006’s “The Champ,” this is David music, with screaming vocals and a melee of guitars (co-produced by Audible Doctor). It’s not as much about Hip Hop as Joell joins Fat Joe on “Killed For Less” . Here, the pair go back to the goonery, in a cinematic New York nightmare akin that blends Clockers with Fort Apache, The Bronx. The ’00s-era emcee brings Joey back to his greatest abilities in one of Free Agent‘s richest moments.
In the last four years, Joell has successfully made music for beyond the block. “Call Me,” with fellow Rawkus alum Novel is the kind of R&B/Rap collaborations that lived on Ron G. blend-tapes. With Al Green in a chop-shop, Ortiz revisits the innocence of first loves that resonates with anybody. He looks back with honest eyes and a teenager’s perspective that makes the moment realer. The storytelling is complete with on-the-mic chuckles and “check” before verses that clearly demonstrate this is an rapper that’s upholding New York’s rich traditions of mastering the ceremony. Circulated widely and also released (as an alternate version) on Year Round Records…Get Used To Us, “Sing Like Bilal” is a sharp collaboration with DJ Premier. Ortiz takes a beat originally intended for the Neo-Soul artist in its title, and brands it as his own. It’s a lyrical workout, and Joell gets his P90X on, requiring no fancy equipment to show that he’s in shape. As much new ground or against-the-grain approaches as Free Agent has, it’s not without triteness. “Cocaine” is a dedication to the powder that provided income to emcee in his former life, and while the second-person narrative is unusual, this is a concept found on numerous albums year-after-year. Still, a few predictable moments and an abundance of skits don’t steal much from the magic Joell makes with this album. Ortiz has clearly earned his place in the conversation as one of Brooklyn’s finest.
For the second time in as many albums, Joell Ortiz did everything skeptics claim that New York emcees no longer do. Free Agent celebrates the finer moments of an urban childhood, as well as the constant threat of danger. The album restores hard lyrics and beats from Premo and Large Professor, but still successfully executes R&B hooks and altered vocals in other places. After years of paying dues and building crews, it is Joell Ortiz that keeps “the Planet” in orbit.