Tuesday, February 23

Freeway Still Hustlin': Stimulus Package is Great

Artist: Freeway & Jake One
Album: The Stimulus Package

Short Review: Rapper Freeway goes underground, drops the whine in his delivery, pairs with Rhymesayers producer Jake One and drops a near-classic.

Long Review: On the surface, it is easy to understand why people might not be excited for The Stimulus Package, the fourth album from Philadelphia native Freeway.

The man is now seven years removed from his career apex, the eternally excellent “What We Do” off his debut, Philadelphia Freeway. The years in between then and now have been anything but kind to Free: label trouble, lyrical barbs with mega-producers Just Blaze and Kanye West, the formation and disbanding of not one but two crews (State Property and Ice City) and a loss of faith in the genre itself have all plagued the rapper. Now he's gone underground, singing with indie label Rhymesayers, priming himself for an underdog-style comeback.

How can someone deal with moving from Jay-Z to Brother Ali? How can one overcome that kind of career letdown? By making a fucking great album, that's how.

Freeway has never been a very technical rapper. His strengths lie more in delivery and emotion than in rhyme schemes or cadences. Free is a worker: he brings the same intensity to every track, the same all-or-nothing energy that endeared him to people seven years ago to every song he works on. The Stimulus Package finds the man playing to his strengths, sounding as feirce and working as hard as possible on songs.

There is an edge to his voice, a gnarled, everyman quality that makes him understandable, obtainable, even admirable on a very human level. These are not the words of some well-educated backpacker or a far off multi-millionaire global icon, this is some motherfucker who short order cooks down the street and freestyles in the kitchen. This isn't an album meant for dissection. This is a tangible album; something to be held and understood in a basic, emotional way.

It's about the struggle, man, and Freeway knows the struggle. He's afraid of having to fall back on construction work should his rap career fail (“Sure not trying to do carpentry like my pops / big pain in the bottom of his back/ and it be hurtin' him”). He remembers having to catch public transportation (“Had my walkman in my pocket / used to hop on the bus”). He's out of the hood, but he remembers what it takes to survive ( “Watch your back in the hood / hate comes from all angels”). On this album, Freeway is always honest, always earnest: he means every word he says, believes in everything he says and the album sounds better for it.

Jake One, the sole producer for The Stimulus Package, supplements Free's life stories with a series of soulful, occasionally spooky, occasionally triumphant soul beats. The music is top notch, blending seamlessly with Free's lyrics, always hitting the correct emotional tone to match the flow and content.

Really, though, the record would sound good regardless of producer, because The Stimulus Package is Freeway's realization that the rags-to-riches fable of gangsta rap is just as flimsy and opaque as rap's detractors would have people believe. The ride will end, things can go wrong and no amount of swagger can change that. This is Freeway coming to terms with his own career mortality by pushing himself harder than ever, stepping his work ethic up a notch and dropping his best album to date. This is the product of a hungry, able hustler, sounding better now than he ever has.

Don't get it twisted: this isn't a classic. There are a few lame tracks, and Freeway still occasionally stumbles over some dumb rhymes. However, listening to his Ghostface-esqu storytelling on "Never Going To Change" or his Tyson-like intensity on "One Thing" or even his fear on "Money," it isn't had to believe that Free has a great album in him.

Key Tracks: Never Going To Chance, One Thing, Microphone Killa, Money, Stimulus Outro

Buy, Steal, Skip: Buy

This track is crazy!

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