Free at last, free at last. Thank God almighty, Freeway is free at last.
Of all the rappers to watch their careers go the way of the mixtape rapper in the wake of Cam’ron and Jay-Z’s dissolution of the Roc, Freeway is the one I always held a soft spot for. His debut with Just Blaze, 2003’s Philadelphia Freeway, was a monster of soulful production that took most seriously Jay-Z’s Blueprint for success. But Freeway is also one of the more unique vocalists in hip-hop, with a nasal whine that can slightly recall Lil’ Wayne at its most fever-pitched. This left a fickle hip-hop audience unsure of what to do with Freeway; was he good or garbage? His rhyme schemes are not traditional either, which is a trait he would really bring into focus on the G-Unit/Roc-a-Fella release Free at Last in 2007. While the production wavered incoherently between midlevel Roc-a-Fella boom bap and the mainstream aspirations of singles like “Lights Get Low” and “Take It to the Top”, Freeway himself became an utter beast on the microphone. His hiatus from the mic to travel to Mecca as part of his Muslim religion seemed to have done him all the good in the world, as he came back a supremely confident, truly unique MC.
Free at Last also introduced fans to the potential Jake One taps into when providing Free a backing track. After Freeway further proved his worth on Jake One’s White Van Music in 2008, I had an inevitable feeling that if any producer were to assume the Just Blaze role in the future, it was going to be Jake One. Thankfully, I couldn’t have been more right. And as such, I’m finding it difficult to put this album into words. How do I explain “One Foot In”, a song so exquisitely put together in both rhyme function and sample lacing that I can’t help but bob my head, memorize the lyrics, and enjoy the hell out of the coolest hook I’ve heard in a while? How do I explain away my embrace of a typically horrible Birdman verse on “Follow My Moves” solely on the strength of an amazing southern-style banger and Freeway’s typically motivational lyrics and exciting delivery? The Stimulus Package is nothing less than the album Freeway was born to make, a release that finds both Free and Jake One at the apex of their respective talents, milking each other for everything they’re worth.
What makes Freeway so entertaining is that he requires a listener to leave his lyrical expectations at the door. The guy’s delivery is breathtaking. It places itself in so many different pockets throughout a given verse. I find this hard to explain because many critics have tried passing Stimulus Package off as a better-than-average release to get until something better comes along. And I’m offended by that. I’m wondering if the things hip-hop fans and critics are listening for aren’t what they used to be. The way Freeway raps is an absolute exercise. Like Redman, his schemes are those of a rapper’s rapper. Beyond his words, Freeway’s rhythm is what really tells the story and attracts attention. “She Makes Me Feel Alright”, which features a genius, bubbly flip of Rick James’ “Mary Jane”, tells the story of Freeway and a love interest. It has a chance to go down as this year’s “International Player’s Anthem” or “Hey Ya”, just one of those stupidly enjoyable songs that anyone who comes in contact with can’t help but champion. Free’s joy here is infectious, yet in the framework of the album, the track acts as mere preparation for what’s about to follow.
You see, Jake One also does a good job of highlighting how malleable Freeway is. The following track, “Never Gonna Change”, features a beat that most MCs would find ridiculously difficult to conquer, but Free tackles it with near-casual effectiveness. “Microphone Killa” gets Freeway in cipher mode with fellow Philly native Young Chris, while “Money” and “Follow My Moves” catch him in his thug motivation mode a la Killer Mike. “One Thing”, featuring Raekwon, is not necessarily an original take on sucker MCs, but through sample choice and performance the three men involved deliver a nearly flawless track on its own merits. “Know What I Mean” hits Freeway with the soul samples he’s best recognized for rapping over, while “Freekin’ the Beat” hands Free a generic Aftermath-style track. “Sho’ Nuff”, like “Follow My Moves”, finds Freeway taking a tour through southern, rather than eastern or western, tropes. The audio on this album is magnificently diverse, in a way that helps the album stay fresh from track to track while avoiding the danger of sounding confused or busy.
But the real gem here lies at the very end. Free opens the album on “Throw Your Hands Up” with three verses, each beginning with tributes to artists he grew up listening to before he became a rapper himself. He explains on that track how he’s here to stimulate the hip-hop economy just as those artists had in his youth, and on “Stimulus Outro” he brings it all home as an accomplished artist checking his fan mail. Similar in concept to Eminem’s immortal single “Stan”, this track puts a positive spin on the artist/fan dynamic as Free explores the perspectives of various fans around the country. On top of an increasingly popular sample source, the Sylvers’ “How Love Hurts” (Skyzoo used it last year and Little Vic the year before), Freeway drops one of the most heartfelt hip-hop joints I’ve heard in a minute. After placating a variety of fans with a variety of concepts and beat styles, Freeway and Jake One deliver the perfect thank you to them, sealing the envelope with a certified closer, a song that sounds like an ending as appropriately as “Maintain”, “It Ain’t Hard to Tell”, or “B.I.B.L.E.”. I don’t compare The Stimulus Package to classics to declare that the album is one, but rather to explain how solid and formidable this album is in the face of such lukewarm criticism. This album is more than hip-hop comfort food, it’s practically hip-hop itself.
Factor in the incredible packaging and you’ve got an early contender for hip-hop album of the year, not to mention an album that will easily stay in your rotation for years, not just months, to come.
// Notes from the Road
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