It’s so easy to lump the various styles of rap music together into one undifferentiated musical mass. Yet, just as it seems obvious upon closer inspection that there are different forms of the blues, say, or jazz, so, too, are there a variety of flavors within the rap world. Everything from the highly user-friendly Will Smith rap-lite to Hip Hop to gangsta rap all fits somewhere along the rap music spectrum. Director Kevin Fitzgerald’s documentary “Freestyle” takes a close look at the newest offshoot of rap spreading through the streets; the amazing mix of improv, poetry, and rap that is Freestyle.
Freestyle, in a nutshell, is extemporaneous rapping; spontaneous rhymes that roll off the top of the rapper’s head in a stream of consciousness flow that’s as impressive as it is infectious. Fitzgerald’s film gives the viewer a taste of freestyle, then wisely steps into the Way Back machine for a brief historical overview of rap music. Though it unofficially considers the Bronx circa 1973 to be rap’s birthplace, “Freestyle” cleverly shows how rapping might have evolved from the contagious, staccato ebb and flow of the preacher’s sermon in African-American churches. The film also pays homage to the largely unheralded Jamaican influences on the burgeoning art form, as well as acknowledges the impact life on the mean streets has had, both for good and for ill, on the music. Finally, the film gets back to Freestyle itself, launching into an excessively prolonged and largely redundant debate between freestylers and written verse loyalists.
Featuring a large assortment of performers from both New York and Los Angeles, newcomers as well as legendary veterans “Welfare Poets” and “Black Star,” the film features plenty of examples of Freestyle. It also demonstrates the initially intimidating concept of “battling,” a sort of hot potato, back and forth rapping contest that gives off the appearance, at first glance, of a soon-to-erupt brawl.
“Freestyle” makes for an interesting close-up on an art form whose intricacies could all too easily go unnoticed. The film tries to follow a story arc of sorts, concluding with an On-Air simulcast radio battle. In the end, however, there’s a little too much filler and not quite enough hard information; a description that, almost by necessity if not design, fairly accurately describes freestyle rap itself.