VMP Rising is our series where we partner with up-and-coming artists to press their music to vinyl and highlight artists we think are going to be the Next Big Thing. Today we’re featuring the deluxe edition of Freelance from Brooklyn-born rapper Ben Reilly.
Atlanta-based rhymesayer Ben Reilly was organic in his crafting of introductory projects Freelance and Freelance: Charlie. Released in 2021 and 2022, respectively, the projects are diaristic in quality, with Reilly demonstrating his unshakable stream-of-conscious technique. Harkening back to the Freelance series, Reilly considers the recording process a means of figurative release, which allowed him to break out of quarantine isolation.
“My whole point in creating the projects [was] to remind myself to let go of things that I can’t control and to be free from it,” Reilly tells VMP over Zoom. "So a lot of Freelance was really me taking the word ‘free’ and playing with it.”
The act of being “free” particularly bounces throughout the verses of Freelance earworm “No Strings: The Let Go,” where Reilly exerts his lifted burdens. The double meaning impressed the rapper’s groundswell of listeners, which grew when a clip of his Baby Keem-sampling breakout track “Maytag (Tax Free)” went viral on TikTok. Hip-hop aficionados flocked to the internet for more of Reilly, including his now-manager Kei Henderson of “creative incubation hub” Third & Hayden. With Reilly being an independent artist, his DIY intentionality spoke to fans searching to express their innate creativity.
On Freelance, Reilly’s in rare form, from cheekily referencing Kurtis Blow’s “The Breaks” (“Townhouse”) to double tapping on a digital rendezvous (“Finsta”). The explorative 13-track project was second nature to Reilly, who was born and raised in hip-hop’s birthplace of New York City (though he specifically grew up in the Brownsville neighborhood in Brooklyn, not the Bronx)specifically Brooklyn’s Brownsville section. His home borough has a genealogy of rap forebears, like the Notorious B.I.G., Jay-Z and Yasiin Bey (formerly known as Mos Def), all of whom Reilly follows as a keen descendent in the genre’s evolution. In fact, Freelance cut “She Likes My… Deep Pockets” is a nod to Bey’s flirtatious 1999 classic “Ms. Fat Booty.”
“Every borough has their strong suit, and I feel like Brooklyn is where the wordsmiths are. We have unique ways of telling stories,” Reilly explains. “When you look at artists that come from Brooklyn, there’s a lot of being in a certain life and observing your surroundings. New York is a very descriptive city. When you look around, everything kind of presents itself to you as an aspect of a story.”
But the rapper also acknowledges his ties to Atlanta, where he relocated to as a teenager. While New York City boasts razor-sharp bars among its hip-hop elite, the ATL has contributed a diverse and melodious quality just years before it was proven that “the south got something to say.”
“I feel like both cities really shaped me into the person that I am, both on a personal level and a creative level,” Reilly says. “My attention to lyricism and wordplay and lyrical density… the aggression I like to tap into comes from my New York background. But my beat selection, I really like how Atlanta culture is so melodic. So I take both cultures and try my best to kind of mold them and shift them into my own reality.”
One aspect of Reilly’s reality is his cinematic visuals, which the rapper accredits to his admiration for “slice of life” and action films. Reilly, who takes his pseudonym from the Marvel character Scarlet Spider, is an admitted cinephile who visibly enlivens while discussing multiple Oscar-winning flick Everything Everywhere All At Once. For him, easter eggs and bookending are key to an engaging film, and visual cues he’s utilized as a creative director for his own music videos.
“Given how interested I am in directing and how much I apply it to my music and videos, I get so enamored by the cinematography. I'm a big fan of the frame within a frame concept and how people use visuals to portray storytelling,” he says.
Reilly’s enigmatic storytelling even appears in the music video for Freelance single “Ace High,” where fellow members of his Abstract Media collective gather as a brotherhood while confronting their personal woes.
“At first we were gonna [have] actors and different people act as the homies. But it hits harder with the fact that these are people that are close in my life,” Reilly says about “Ace High.” “Like I was saying in the song, my people didn’t know that I was hurting and it’s up to us to help each other get out of that rut.”
As Freelance generated buzz across the indie hip-hop circuit, Reilly originated the “Charlie” archetype on project B-side Freelance: Charlie. Reilly associated the fictional character with a bird — specifically a male cardinal — also recognized as a spiritual psychopomp, which represent courage and beginning anew. With Charlie embodying Reilly’s transformational period, the rapper intrepidly flexes his playful intonation and lines on songs like “Agenda,” “Free.99” and “Brand New Free.”
“I found a lot of freedom and peace within the cardinal birds, especially after learning so much about them during the process of me working on those projects. ‘Charlie’ is the red bird personified,” Reilly says.
Onto the next chapter of his rise in hip-hop, Reilly’s prepping new EP Not Your Hero for Hire, where he’ll flip superhero phrases and names on their head, apropos of his favorite Spider-Man character.
“I’m moving away from the birds and more into the superhero realm. So on this EP, it’s not overtly personal, it’s actually pretty fun,” Reilly says. “But the whole purpose is to introduce that idea of superheroism and slowly get people prepared for when that album does come and I really give myself to them.”
Moving into the post-Freelance era, Reilly’s attuned to his inner strength and prepared to reflect it upon listeners seeking redemption. If Freelance and Freelance: Charlie were the rapper’s quest for freedom, his second act will cement him within the apex of self-discovery.
“It’s impossible to try to save the word if you can’t save yourself. Which means, if you can’t identify your flaws, it’s hard to really try to help someone else with theirs,” Reilly says. “That’s been my whole thing going forward; trying to better the superhero in me before I tell someone else about their superpowers.”
Jaelani Turner-Williams is an Ohio-raised culture writer and bookworm. A graduate of The Ohio State University, Jaelani’s work has appeared in Billboard, Complex, Rolling Stone and Teen Vogue, amongst others. She is currently Executive Editor of biannual publication Tidal Magazine.