I bet there’s dozens of underground rap records that have the title Diamond In The Ruff. After all, does anyone take more pride in having their obvious greatness overlooked than the underground rapper? But since this album comes from Freeway, the title is a little more complicated: After all, “diamond” is the symbol of his former home, Roc-A-Fella Records, and it’s been a full decade since he piped up on “Diamond Is Forever,” the leadoff track from Jay-Z’s Blueprint 2, which was released at that label’s commercial zenith. Freeway is an underground rapper now, but not necessarily by choice.
That subliminal callback symbolizes the awkward position Diamond in the Ruff occupies: In the end, it’s a record that relentlessly caters to those who have stood by Freeway through all of his career decisions – both good and ill-advised. Filed under “ill-advised”? “Dream Big” and “Lil’ Mama,” both of which are built on samples that recall Free At Last highlight “Still Got Love” almost verbatim. All the same, nothing can completely counteract the visceral pleasure of Freeway’s rapping – still delivered with five-alarm urgency, even when he’s griping about skinny jeans and “real hip-hop.” Likewise, there are moments where Free raps over beats other than the typical Just Blaze-derived soul-rap bombast and finds a new context in which he can be effective; “No Doubt” and “True” take their cues from the woozy textures associated with Drake or any number of club-rappers.
But the album is shadowed by a melancholy sense of awareness that Freeway’s current position in the rap game may well be his final one. As such, it’s more about rallying the troops than hitting the recruiting trail. As such, Diamond InThe Ruff is the kind of intermittently pleasing and self-conscious record made by former major-label rappers in painful transition, realizing that branding and presentation is every bit as crucial as craft.