The title of Hoodrich Pablo Juan’s “Free Hood” is not a coincidence. The Atlanta by way of Newark rapper born Sterling Leroy Pennix Jr. accepted a plea bargain in 2022 on a RICO case, but as part of the plea got his sentence reduced to five years with a closely supervised probation afterward. If he gets credit for time served from first being arrested in 2020, he could be “free” in a couple of years. It hasn’t stopped him from recording and releasing new albums. It was novel to rap from behind bars for Lifers Group or X-Raided, but it’s become altogether commonplace these days. The only thing Hoodrich doesn’t have here is music videos to accompany songs like “Baguettes.”
“Get money through the pandemic, don’t panic.” That’s the kind of lyric that will date “Free Hood” in the years to come, and one that also makes me wonder how much material he had already backlogged before incarceration. When he comes out he’ll be living in a post-COVID 19 world, although it’s entirely possible we’ll be embroiled in a new and entirely different pandemic by then. “Confessions” can ride before or after thanks to the bass thump from DJ Champ. It’s ironic that I just linked to Champ’s page when Pablo raps “fuck Instagram” on the song, but it is what it is. He also says “before I snitch, I’ll go do my bid” in what was either a prophetic or accurate bar.
Hoodrich also says some things than no amount of Champ’s chops can fix. “She don’t do no talkin’ but know how to use them lips […] she know what it is, shorty gon’ swallow my kids.” I’m having one of those Murtaugh “I’m too old for this shit” moments right now. This kind of misogyny might have been funny when N.W.A did “She Swallowed It” in my teenage years, but I’m 30 years older now and “Love How She Strip” doesn’t hit me the same way. If I’m going to be kind though I can’t blame a guy behind bars for fantasizing about getting some oral — if that’s the case anyway. If he recorded this ahead of time and released it during his term there’s no avoiding how dismissive it is toward women. Does he care either way? I doubt it.
While “Free Hood” is ably supported by DJ Champ throughout with additional support from Spiffy Global, Swauv, Trauma Tone, Killa Calbo and Klokez among others, there are a few things about Hoodrich that don’t work for me. All his bars sound like he just woke up from a nasty hangover and can barely speak. The vocals are delivered in such a nonchalant, soft spoken way that the beats can drown them out completely. When he does get loud enough on songs like “The Movie” he has nothing terribly interesting to say anyway, unless you count rhyming “contacts” with “contacts.”
“Eat with the roaches, no rats
Fuck that lil’ loss, I bounce back
Clientele in my contacts
These niggaz can’t see me, they gon’ need contacts”
It’s not easy to be hard on HPJ though. I appreciate that he keeps the pitch modulation and singing to a minimum. I appreciate how much the majority of songs on “Free Hood” thump. I was surprised to learn Hoodrich had made several “worst rappers ever” list, which only made me think the people making those lists just aren’t trying hard enough. He’s not even the worst rapper I’ve heard today let alone in my entire 30+ year history of writing about rap music. He wouldn’t crack my top 10, top 50, or top 150. I don’t think his bars are super interesting but that’s far from a disqualification to be a rapper. Flow? Competent. Breath control? Check. Production to support his lyrics? Well above average. When Hoodrich gets out I hope he can avoid getting violated and sent back because he’s at least good enough to be making a living from this shit.