Freestyle: The Art of Rhyme


Freestyle: The Art of Rhyme Review

Kevin Fitzgerald's documentary about freestyling -- the process of coming up with raps off the top of your head -- first hit the festival circuit in 2000; arriving on DVD in 2005, it already feels archival, like a bit of old news. Mos Def, the biggest name in the film, is captured while he was still a member of the hip-hop duo Black Star, well before he moved on to a successful solo and film career; many of the other underground rappers featured - including Divine Styler, Pharoahe Monch, Aceyalone, Bahamadia -- are either no-names or had their biggest moments the better part of a decade ago.

That says something about how hip-hop evolves as a genre - it's not Fitzgerald's fault that the genre he loves best moves so fast, and getting an indie documentary finished on a shoestring can be a lengthy process. But you wouldn't notice how dated the film feels if it didn't have more serious organizational problems. Freestyle mainly wants to be a documentary about the history and mechanics of freestyling, but its loose-limbed, impressionistic structure too often makes the film drift away from the point. Freestyle bounces from interviews with members of early-'70s Beat-poet-styled hip-hop pioneers the Last Poets to brief (and unconvincing) attempts to tether freestyling to Baptist church preachers and John Coltrane's improvisations. Brief interludes about the history of early hip-hop in the Bronx, female rappers, and the mainstream rap industry take on worthy subjects, but they draw energy away from the subject at hand.

When it sticks to the point, though, there are some powerful, illuminating moments. A stunning clip of a young Notorious B.I.G. freestyling on a Brooklyn street in 1987 shows that he'd mastered his stentorian flow by the time he was a teenager. The best segments about MC Supernatural, who gets the most screen time, are the ones where he discusses his learning process (essentially, memorizing a rhyming dictionary) and the pressures involved in staying ahead of competitors in battle raps. And Supernatural's nemesis, Chicago rapper Juice, cuts an amusingly controversial figure - everybody who talks about him is quick to wonder if he's committed the cardinal sin of writing his freestyles.

Unfortunately, Fitzgerald doesn't spend nearly enough time on any one subject to give a clear picture of what role he believes freestyling plays in hip-hop - depending on who's talking, it's a subgenre of hip-hop, a stepping-stone in a hip-hop career, or hip-hop itself. Most often, it comes off as hip-hop's version of jamming, which is capable of brilliance or teeth-gnashingly dull self-indulgence. Watch a few unknowns rattle off some off-beat ruminations about the last time they had sex or the other guy's flaws, and you'll appreciate why Mos Def and B.I.G. made it to the big leagues. But there's too little evidence that freestyling in itself deserves even the short 75 minutes allotted for this film.

Freestyle: The Art of Rhyme

Facts and Figures

Run time: 60 mins

In Theaters: Friday 14th April 2000

Distributed by: Organic Films

Reviews 2.5 / 5

Rotten Tomatoes: 89%
Fresh: 16 Rotten: 2

IMDB: 7.6 / 10

Cast & Crew

Starring: as Himself, Planet Asia as Himself, as Herself, Akim Funk Buddah as Himself, Eluard Burt as Himself, Myo Campbell as Himself, as Himself, Darkleaf as Himself, as Himself, Kirby Dominant as Himself