18Jan/110

Freeway Sorts Through Fan Mail

Stream – Freeway and Jake One “Stimulus Package Outro (Fan Mail)”

It is 2010. Freeway is home alone for a change, taking a break from the studio grind. He has been through his share of personal and professional tribulations, but his recent mixtape collaboration with producer Jake One and a new contract with Rhymesayers Entertainment points to a bright and productive future. In his post-State Property, post-Hajj days, he is grateful that he is still rapping and touring. Hearing from his fans is one of the purest blessings he receives while working in show business.

Unlike AZ, whose 2001 song titled “Fan Mail”1 was rapped entirely from the perspective of the letter writers, Freeway’s rhymes in The Stimulus Package outro track  includes a first person narration of the process of receiving, reading, and reacting to the messages. Freeway’s choice to integrate such exposition into his verses (he also included unrhymed ad-libs between verses) has the effect of knocking down formal barriers between the artist and the fan.

AZ treats fan mail as holy scripture, to be pored over and contemplated from a respectful distance. His letters contain ornate multisyllabic rhymes packed with philosophical musings; they are written and rapped with his trademark smooth, unrelenting flow, much like any of his other verses. For Freeway however, these exchange are casual and warm, the long-distance version of a friendly conversation between old friends. His letters are theatrical, exaggerated versions of his already loose, idiosyncratic style. They are rapped in different voices and accents and packed with amusing turns of phrase and tonal shifts; these dynamics are telegraphed (sorry) to the listeners by way of his voice’s constantly changing timbre, cadence, and emphasis.

The reasons behind these different approaches are both artistic and incidental. Freeway observes that his fan mail arrives in both the electronic and traditional forms; the letters that are featured in the song are shorter and more direct than the ones included in AZ’s “Fan Mail.” Freeway’s song was released in 2010, which is a cultural technological eon away from AZ’s 2001. Freeway has no choice but to craft verses that take on the form of a set of email exchanges in order to capture the immediacy and ease of  exchange in an era where social networking has all but closed the gap of mystique separating fan from artist. This works out for the best; AZ is believable as a sartorial maven deftly slicing envelopes open with a golden letter opener; Freeway makes sense to us with his beard unruly, hovering over his laptop in sweats and house shoes.

Freeway’s emails do not pack the same gravity as the letters read by AZ, and again this is a function of both the inherent differences between old and new media and the rappers’ divergent views of how to construct an epistolary rap song. Freeway’s letters are greetings, meant to spark an exchange, while AZ”s letters are sprawling conversations unto themselves. Freeway’s letter writers are infused with subjectivity and depth through his animated vocal performance. In Freeway’s roller coaster rapping we can hear the adoration in a young fan’s praises; the coyness and confidence of a young woman who strips her way through college; the devil-may-care attitude of an ambitious North Carolina hustler; and the humiliation and resignation of an impoverished young father forced to commit crimes to feed his children.

Ultimately the song is all about Freeway, however, so we do not get to hear the letter writers themselves provide much, if any, substantive commentary on their respective predicaments. The letters in AZ’s “Fan Mail” are literate and expository; through them we are given a glimpse into the lives and thought processes of people in dire straits. Most of Freeway’s letter writers hint vaguely at problematic living conditions; only the necklace-stealing father from Flint, Michigan reveals the extent to which his situation is troublesome. This admission signals a shift in the song’s focus from the reading of the letters to Freeway’s commentary, which is framed as a response to the letters and a mission statement for The Stimulus Package.

The mission, simply stated, is to connect and give back to the fans, in short, to answer the fan mail. He acts out what he imagines to be  his fans’ accents and inflections in order to inhabit and dramatize their thoughts.  Then he allows their seemingly unembellished messages to speak for themselves before providing the lofty analysis that links their personal struggles to his quest to maintain artistic authenticity and the black collective’s historical journey towards greater freedom and self-sufficiency. These tactics allow Freeway to lend an air of solemnity and profundity to his song without encroaching on his fans’ subjectivity.2

AZ’s patient, reverential empathizing comes at the price of a more authentic testimony on the part of the fans. This is understandable given AZ’s tendency towards formality, but Freeway’s successfully casual approach suggests that rap’s epistolary tradition is one that continues to be refined, and that rap’s status as a genre that remains thematically fixated on the well-being of its core fanbase is not entirely evanescent. — Thun

Related Posts

  1. Read my analysis of AZ’s ” Fan Mail” if you missed it. []
  2. I do wonder however, whether or not the difference in approaches is also a function of culture, with AZ representing for an age group that had greater exposure to books and thus written, un-acted, un-vocalized, non-visual narrative. []

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