Freeway and Jake One The Stimulus Package

[Rhymesayers; 2010]

Rating: 3.5/5

Styles: East Coast rap, mainstream hip-hop
Others: Ghostface, Beanie Siegel, Young Gunz

Pay little mind to the title; The Stimulus Package isn’t aiming to ape Jeezy’s post-Recession thug motivation shtick. Freeway lacks the pretension or ambition to put out even a half-assed concept album. Free’s always been something of a yeoman rapper: consistent, modest, and never not rapping his ass off. But modesty and lack of ambition hardly advance careers. Freeway’s first record was produced by Just Blaze, and Free At Last, his excellent 2007 follow-up, was overseen by both Jay-Z and 50 Cent. Since then, his reputation has been in steep decline. Last year’s Philadelphia Freeway 2 was the first stumble of his career, an embarrassing blip of a record on a sub-Koch indie label. Few heard it, which is probably for the better. Following the collapse of Roc-A-Fella records, the rapper also known as Leslie Pridgen has maintained his admirable work ethic, if not his usual standard of quality. Last year’s Month of Madness project kept his name in the rap blogs, but seemingly failed to garner him any momentum.

Now, out of the wilderness and back with a new, incongruous label affiliation, Freeway sounds sharper than ever. The Stimulus Package picks up where Free At Last left off, with another no-nonsense collection of soul-indebted hood rap. In a sense, his lack of ambition pays off, much like Raekwon’s did with last year’s Cuban Linx II — rather than struggling to keep pace with internet rap trends, Freeway follows a back-to-basics philosophy, keeping things tight, as well as unfussily gangsta. Make no mistake, Rhymesayers hasn’t toned Free down one iota. All the talk of snitches and straps might be discordant with both the Midwest label and the current musical climate, but it also anchors the album to the same milieu as the strongest material in Freeway’s back catalog.

More than the trap shit-talking, the well-chosen guest list on The Stimulus Package reinforces the throwback attitude; Beanie Siegel, Young Chris, and Raekwon all contribute solid work. Rae, in particular, provides crucial assistance on album highlight “One Thing.” The lush, thickly harmonious production work accents Free’s soulful and streetwise sides. Few other songs stand out as prominently, but the level of quality is admirably high throughout. Even the lighter material shines; though “She Makes Me Feel Alright” is little more than the obligatory bit of girl talk, it feels genuine enough to make the ickier material (“I told her ‘I love you/ I never hit you/ ‘Cept for in your coochie and your mouth’/ She said ‘cut it out’”) sound more like affectionate Ghostface-style punchlines. The laid-back mood is infectious; even the usually dismal Birdman puts in decent work on the keyboard-heavy “Follow My Moves.” That song impresses as the only non-soul-rooted cut on The Stimulus Package, but despite the obvious trance-rap influence, it manages to fit within the context of the album.

Credit for this musical uniformity is largely due to Jake One, the album’s sole producer. Whereas in the past, Freeway has been tripped up by stylistic excursions, Jake One plays to Free’s strengths, padding the record with well-chosen samples; bluesy, almost prog-like guitar licks; and sentimental piano plinks. His production could hardly be considered adventurous, but the instrumentals are nothing if not smartly chosen and arranged. This being billed as a collaborative effort, Jake sneaks in neat little flourishes, like the Moroder-toned outro on “Microphone Killa.”

The Stimulus Package, despite its remarkable consistency, remains a modest achievement. As ever, Freeway doesn’t display the desire to be your favorite rapper, nor your favorite rapper’s favorite rapper. Rather, the major achievement here is Free’s regained sense of purpose, his continuing to hold down for the Roc, despite that label being long dissolved. Few new fans, if any, will be converted by The Stimulus Package, but longtime fans will find much to admire. It’s a marginal triumph, and the lowered stakes have finally allowed Freeway to shine, at least without him being beholden to major label groupthink. Which other rappers can put out an album that is simultaneously a career high and another serving of the same-old?

Links: Freeway and Jake One - Rhymesayers

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