The second Fredo album in the space of six months begins in portentous style. There’s a reading of an extract from an 1852 speech given by the former slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass – a speech that contrasted the celebration of “freedom” on 4 July with the lot of the slave – followed by a churchy sounding organ playing a figure that distinctly recalls Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor. “I know labels don’t want it to end this way,” offers the rapper on the chorus, “but I had to tell them it’s independence day.”
It’s the kind of bullish declaration of freedom an artist might make had they recently quit, or been dropped by, a major label: a new beginning, free from the interference of A&R men and bean-counters suggesting you round your edges and demanding to know where the next hit is. But the advance stream of Independence Day arrives from Sony, bearing the logo of RCA, which has released every preceding Fredo album.
So it clearly isn’t about that. Perhaps it’s linked to the events of the last 12 months in Fredo’s career: 2020 represented a sticky creative patch for an artist who had previously scored two Top 5 albums and a string of hit singles, including the chart-topping collaboration with Dave, Funky Friday. The problem was the single Hickory Dickory Dock. It wasn’t entirely clear whether its “rock it, rock it, mosh pit, mosh pit” refrain was Fredo trying to come up with something designed to be meme-able on TikTok, along the lines of Drake’s Toosie Slide, but whatever his intention, it got a very frosty reception both critically – “what is this shit?” demanded one reaction vlog – and commercially. The track disappeared from streaming services, Fredo disowned it – dismissing it, along with hits he’d released in 2020 with Mist and Young T & Bugsey, as “pop shit”. Tellingly, his next single was called Back to Basics.
Fredo doesn’t really bother with the kind of deep self-examination that Dave goes in for, nor any explicit politicking
His subsequent album, Money Can’t Buy Happiness, was a well-received hit, but clearly the opprobrium he endured still rankles (“They say I fell off,” he complains on Freestyle, “them man there are hella haters”), as does the suggestion that he leaned into a more commercial sound at the behest of his label, hence, presumably, Independence Day’s opening.
The rest of the album seems even more stark than its predecessor, a doubling-down on core values. There’s certainly nothing here like the Auto-Tune-heavy vocals of Do You Right, or the Fugees-sampling Ready. The closest it comes to the latter’s soulful chorus are the disembodied vocal samples that float around Skinny N****s, a track on which Fredo pledges to dial down the braggadocio about his wealth a little: “Thought I was slipping away rapping about them glittery chains … I got to go hard”. It largely deals in dark-hued samples – horror-movie chimes on Mind, sombre piano on My Mother’s Life – over trap beats and lurching bass. That isn’t to say the production isn’t creative. If you are keen for your music to get some action on TikTok, Double Tap’s ghostly repurposing of a vocal from Hayloft by Mother Mother – a minor Canadian indie band until a selection of tracks from their 2008 album O My Heart, Hayloft among them, inexplicably became linked with trends on the video-sharing platform last year – seems a markedly better way of going about it: the vocal repeats hypnotically over a churning bassline to exciting effect.
Lyrically, Independence Day sticks hard to road-rap’s staple topics: violence, prison, drugs, the tone of the rhymes – “how you drillers when you only done one stabbing?” – undercut by the melancholy that runs through the sound. Fredo doesn’t really bother with the kind of deep self-examination that Dave goes in for, nor any explicit politicking, although both Skinny N****s and the closing Outro find him struggling to square his success with his past, and his friends still trapped by poverty and crime . The title of Wandsworth to Bullingdon refers to the Oxfordshire prison, rather than Boris Johnson’s former drinking society, but Fredo’s very good at flashing wit among the threats of violence and scorn: “I got more bits than Tropicana”.
He’s good, too, at knowing when to abruptly drop the lyrical temperature, as on 14, which switches from dismissing the idea of getting a nine to five rather than dealing drugs, before shifting its tone: “I was 14 when I stopped going shop with my mum / She said ‘Why?’ I said ‘I got beef’, she’s like ‘What have you done?’,” runs the chorus, suddenly sounding not proud, but lost.
Elsewhere on the same track, Fredo offers another dismissal of the music he made in 2020: “Last year, I came in light, this year’s my heavy flow,” he says, something Independence Day bears out. It’s not one of UK rap’s periodic game-changing albums, but then, it’s clearly not meant to be: as retrenchments go, it does its job perfectly.