This post is written by Michael "Farley" McFarland - founder of Second Street LLC. Farley has worked at several recording studios in Chicago and has produced & engineered several works of both his own and others' music.
You know that feeling when you've listened to somebody's music for a long time, or perhaps watched an actor in a TV show for all of its seasons, or even seen a pro athlete play their heart out for several years? And you think, "man, if I met this person, I bet I'd know just what they're like." It's a funny thing -- getting familiar with somebody through indirect contact. Obviously you can't claim to know somebody who you've never met or even spoken a word to. Yet, sometimes this sensation feels so real! So how is that the case?
I think it comes down to how our true personalities often come out through our expressions. Art speaks so many words for us that we don't say ourselves. Think about it: if I take years honing my craft, gathering specific inspirations, drawing from all the intimate things in my own headspace, and I distill it all down into one two-minute song (or as Shirley Ann Lee says, "three minutes max!"), wouldn't it serve you better to just listen to that, rather than us sharing basic pleasantries about how busy work has been, or how cold it's been outside? In my opinion, if you just gave my short song a listen, you'd learn something about my style, my passions, my motivations, and my fears. We as people skip so many levels of familiarity when we consume one another's art in a way that, to me, feels really beautiful. Especially when artists allow themselves to be fully vulnerable in their expressions!
Chicago's own FREEJOSHJ is a person who lays his cards on the table, as clear as day. In fact, in the first full-length track of his 2023 LP Yellow, he raps"I just wanna put my family in a good position; if I'm ever blessed to do so before my demise; my intentions from the start, nah this ain't no disguise..." Throughout the record, he repeatedly demonstrates to us exactly who he is as a person. He's somebody who wants to be somebody. Who wants to protect his peace. Who wants to kick back on the beach with his partner without stress. And while these topics aren't particularly new, what makes this album so refreshing is how few barriers JOSH puts up between himself and the listener.
Through a high degree of self-production, JOSH personalizes his music to a level that only a handful of artists today are able to achieve (I'm thinking JPEGMAFIA, Tyler, the Creator, etc). He approaches his sound in a detail-oriented way, in which lyrical content is frequently accompanied by relevant production or SFX flairs to keep things engaging. It gives listeners an even clearer window to peer into the inner thoughts and emotions that are plenty transparent to begin with. Parts working together to form one tight message. Let's dive in.
What Does It Sound Like?
This stylistically fluid hip-hop album contains lots of pitched R&B vocal samples that remain in a distant and ambient place. Extra pad synths add some texture, but still leave plenty of space. Josh adds fresh, open drum patterns to create a wide pocket to sing, rap, and pivot seamlessly between flows within. Themes of love and lust round out the middle section of Yellow (which makes sense, given "YLO" is reframed as "your love only" in a vibey interlude halfway through the project) but there are also self-introspective moments where FREEJOSHJ talks about emotional security and stability.
The catchy "Bomb!" is a standout track where FREEJOSHJ's sonic formula comes together perfectly. Rapping to a love interest who has been burned before, JOSH channels a tone reminiscent of a young, hungry J. Cole circa The Sideline Story. A catchy chorus full of onomatopoeia and knocking kicks make this an instant rewind-and-replay kind of record.
The next track "Patek U" is a bright, thoughtful flip of Ginuwine's 2003 mood-setter single "In Those Jeans." JOSH showcases his versatility by laying a smooth hook, before clearing his throat and ripping a tongue-twisting verse with plenty of quotables including the hilarious "can I be your OnlyFan?" As the song fades into an atmospheric, reversed dreamscape, there's a flirty conversation in the outro that you can't help but smile at.
There are darker sonic moments like "The Pain of Addiction," which features a moody saxophone riff and a woozy electric bass line, and "Be Somebody," which plods along to a menacing Reese bass, an icy synth lead, and aggressive drums. There's even a boom bappy moment in "No Come Backs," where JOSH gets to showcase a swung flow ("gimme the loot!") for a short moment of head knocking. That tasty recurring motif of vocal chops and samples swelling in and out pairs with crispy percussion to keep things pleasing to the ear.
What Does It Feel Like?
As mentioned earlier, as well as musical variety, there is also a diversity in subject matter throughout Yellow. At times, JOSH broods over heavier existential topics like going through life without making an impact, and having a desire to provide for his future family. Throughout it all, JOSH delivers his lyrics with his signature humility and honesty.
There is a mantra established in the intro track "50 Shades of the Sun!" that JOSH reinforces through the album -- despite facing challenges in the past, we are capable to rise up and become the people we want to be. If that's the case, "Rain" is an ode to the haters who rain on his parade. As he sits and stews with this negativity, he comes to the conclusion to let it go in order to maintain his optimism, his own form of Yellow sunshine. It's an uplifting anthem about keeping your confidence when the odds are stacked against you. With a crazy beat switch and some complex rhyme schemes, this song is a great display of musicianship.
"Forgive" is a shining cornerstone of Yellow: a gorgeous track about the fleeting nature of time and how we choose to spend it ("every decision made today is gon' matter with time; I see so many waste away in a matter of time; I'm alive, I know I gotta do better with mine...") Schènay Mosley, who has had quite a start to 2023 singing on the Luv is 4Ever tour, joins for a feature. She offers lush background vocals and airy harmonies on the extended outro that blend right in with ringing sirens and retro synths to make the listener feel like they're in Miami cruising after a summer night. This ambient song wouldn't feel out of place on SAINt JHN's "Ghetto Lenny's Love Songs." Definitely a highlight.
Another similar feeling track comes towards the end of the album: "Malibu Sunsets." This is a mellow tune about keeping your mental straight in the midst of life's stressors, in a troubled city like Chicago no less. B Jilla provides a buttery verse with a singsongy inflection, perfect for the instrumental. JOSH's relaxing delivery and the rainy soundscape combine for a meditative listen. This song makes it clear that, in the end, sometimes we all just gotta get away from time to time. Maybe that'll be possible for this talented artist sometime soon.
Producing a project likeYellow is something to hang your hat on. Writing and rapping a project like Yellow is impressive too. FREEJOSHJ managed to do both (with the help of executive producer Miles Royal and collaborators Pedro Sandoval and CTKtheDon). My advice would be to keep an eye out for this skilled multi-hyphenate as the year continues.
Did you check out Yellow? What are your thoughts? Share 'em with us below.
On The Block...
"Libra's Lullaby" - Roy Kinsey
As a fellow Libra, I just knew this one was gonna hit. Over top of an ethereal, drifting instrumental courtesy of Mike Jones, Roy reminisces on the details of a romance in a gravely, calm tone. Halfway through the lullaby, the tempo chops down and the beat gives way for singer Demetruest to bring the house down with their velvety pipes.
"you leave me in the dark" - LaSalle Grandeur
The ever-unique pop/alternative talent delivers a downtempo ear-worm that sounds like it's on a cassette tape your crush made for you. Cute pitched backing vocals pierce through warm, warbly Rhodes chords for a lovely, lo-fi feel. The single is tagged (Alone Version), a mysterious message that hopefully indicates more music to come soon.
"The Ladder" - Patagonist
If you flip a College Dropout sample, you gotta really do it justice. Luckily, this charismatic, rapid-fire spitter from Hazel Crest, IL brings his 'A' game and bounces on the iconic beat for over two minutes straight. The recurring hook "We don't care what people say, cause it don't matter" is simple, clean, and so damn true.