November 7, 2010

Reader Review: Freeway & Jake One - The Stimulus Package (February 16, 2010)

(Today's Reader Review features the return of longtime contributor A.R. Marks, who tackles Freeway's post-Roc-A-Fella Records effort The Stimulus Package, his collaboration with producer Jake One. Leave some comments for A.R. Marks below.)

Freeway must feel pretty lost right about now.

After damn near a decade of haunting the Roc-A-Fella offices, bumming beats from Just Blaze and trying (and failing) to do the same with Kanye West, making appearances on both high-profile projects and the musical equivalent of microwavable frozen dinners (*cough* Young Gunz *cough*), all the while knowing his own sophomore album was always in a perpetual state of limbo, his label imploded not unlike Death Row (with the founding fathers parting ways), and he found himself and his State Property teammates going the way of RBX, Tha Dogg Pound and The Lady of Rage.

Freeway shouldn't feel too bad, though, seeing as how he was one of only a handful of artists who ever got a first chance on the Roc, never mind a second one, and like Beanie Sigel, he was allowed to craft and push his own Roc-A-Fella-branded project, provided he did everything his goddamn self. The result, his second album Free At Last, was a commendable but (in this reviewer's opinion) bland offering that hardcore fans went apenuts over and which, at its peak of relevance, generated headlines because it featured Freeway bitching about the aforementioned Just Blaze and Kanye West no longer feeling obligated to feed him beats, which reclassified him to Memphis Bleek-status on the Roc food chain.

We all know what usually happens on a major label when you've been given a second chance that flops. Soon, although he still claimed Jay-Z as one of his BFFs, Freeway dropped the mixtape-album Philadelphia Freeway 2 (a sequel to his well-received debut) in the no-man's-land of independent digital distribution, and he also announced his signing to Cash Money Records, via a vanity label called Free Money which, albeit cleverly named, stood absolutely no fucking chance of ever happening in the current state of the music industry. Once again, Freeway was left looking for a label to call home. (Interestingly, this was around the same time that Tha Dogg Pound was talking through their own failed deal with Cash Money Records, which would have made Freeway and fellow Philadelphia native Kurupt labelmates. That could have been nice.)

Needless to say, I was a little bit skeptical when I read about The Stimulus Package, Free's latest attempt at a comeback, which is a collaboration with failed G-Unit producer Jake One that was released on Rhymesayers Entertainment. I had heard some of Jake's work, however, and liked it well enough. Truth be told, I'm not really sure what compelled me to listen to The Stimulus Package in the first place, but what I found was...

...first off, a deliciously soulful overture that runs for about thirty seconds before Beanie Sigel (whose voice is the first one heard on The Stimulus Package, which in Only Built 4 Cuban Linx... terms makes Sigel Freeway's sidekick for once) starts asking Freeway why the fuck he isn't spitting yet, as though they were engaged in a freestyle competition and Freeway just stood there nodding and going in on a cookie for half a minute. As a result, Sigel (hilariously) takes over the proceedings. Though this is Sigel's only contribution to the entire project (nixing my earlier Ghostface Killah comparison), he makes it worth it, but it's Freeway's spirited delivery that puts the icing on this cake of a backdrop.

This beat is bouncy and, again, soulful, utilizing an elastic bass line and a bevy of other instruments buried in the mix for a funky effect. Freeway is spitting pretty damn well: while the lyrics themselves are as potent as ever, it feels like he's grown into his flow, which makes a big difference with the song's appeal. The added horns and synth that accompany the hook kick this song up to another level as well.

Free and Jake tone it down a bit, with Free flowing seamlessly over a halting beat consistently consisting of bass and a low vocal sample. The song doesn't exactly stack up to the two previous numbers, but it makes for an entertaining listen, with the catchy “yeah yeah!” bridge that doesn't sound as cheesy as it should. However, did he really have to interpolate the Hokey Pokey at the end? It's just that: hokey.

So far, I'm impressed by the relative absence of guest appearances (Sigel doesn't count, since he could be considered more of a nostalgic throwback to Free's earlier days) in an age where most albums are crammed so full of them that you can barely remember which artist is supposed to be the host. Jake One stays on his low-key course, but drums up a little more momentum with a freewheeling string beat which sees Free engage in the tired tradition of describing his conquests in erotic novel-esque detail. The swing of the beat makes the song bearable if you zone out, but nothing can make the content feel necessary.

Channeling The Notorious B.I.G.'s “Warning”, Free relates a tale of some jerks trying to steal his money. The nerve of these assholes! The beat is good, for what it is, even coming across as atmospheric, but the ever-shifting tempo is as distracting here as it is when used in any other capacity, peeling our attention away from a ably-flowed verse of what might be some vivid storytelling from our host.

Free and Wu-Tang guest star Raekwon nudge a bass-heavy, minimal, and repetitious beat into a pale approximation of life with the lyrical equivalent of desperate CPR, trying to make the most of their situation. Unfortunately, while Ghostface might have made this somehow work, Raekwon just can't quite match up to the mood or energy required, making this the first truly failed effort on The Stimulus Package so far. Rae's Only Built 4 Cuban Linx...Pt. II collaboration with Beans was much more effective.

Things are back on track with this bluesy Jake One beat made up of a creeping bassline, clap drums, and a blues vocal sample with, thankfully, a consistent tempo. Freeway lays down instructions for hood living, and it's interesting that, for someone whose very album title endorses the government stimulus bill, he is encouraging his fans to go ahead and sell drugs for money. His verses are structurally admirable, as is his flow, providing yet another example of a tired subject being tackled by the co-star of the show with laudable enthusiasm.

Free's former boss Jay-Z already flipped this concept on American Gangster, but the beat for Hova's version was sickly-sweet, while this joint is decidedly less overproduced and more organic. Jake's creeping beat, consisting of tinkling piano keys and a xylophone refrain, provide nice atmosphere for Freeway to wind three surprisingly interesting verses around the overdone idea of being music, which combines with an extended shout-out session with references to Dr. Dre's The Chronic and Detox in the hook which (a) bring to mind again the Roc's similarities to Death Row (and Aftermath, technically), and (b) makes me wonder: what would that collaboration sound like? After the final verse, Mr. One adds a subtle violin for some flare. Well done.

The album returns to the daylight, figuratively speaking, with a bouncy joint that provides Free with a tight walking bassline, subtle piano, and downright joyous horn sample to wreck shit the fuck out of for two verses with a crash-course hook. He's followed by Young Chris, who, I will admit, kicks a pretty nice verse here, although I have to note that I've never liked the guy, and not just because he sounds too much like Jay-Z.

I can say the same about Birdman, the Cash Money CEO-slash-rap star (and Freeway's former employer, I suppose), who I'm glad did not appear under Baby, his (slightly) more ridiculous moniker. Although his verse is expectedly rudimentary, his voice actually fits nicely on this extremely chill assemblage of expressive bass, synth, more synth and, intermittently, even more synth. Free rips it much better, as expected, and lays down three verses to Birdy's one, which overall makes this a pretty good cut.

Ah, a much more accomplished native of the infamous South. Over the low piano, high xylophone, and a bassline that convinces me Jake One is probably the king of the hip-hop bass (you heard it on HHID first!), with a beautiful hook backed by what I believe to be a guitar line, both Freeway and Bun B kick the crap out of the song as though they were Rick James on Eddie Murphy's couch.

With such lush, soulful offerings backing his thoughts, it's a shame that Freeway suffers from such lack of imagination in the concept department on The Stimulus Package. This is one of the best beats on the album hands down: Jake crafts a jazzy cut out of trippy synth sound effects and a super laid-back saxophone refrain. While the idea of music as a woman has been done before, Free actually puts a bit of a twist on it by claiming the his is fucking the beat. Actually, strike my earlier criticism from before: he actually flips this cookie-cutter idea pretty well.

Sparks I can understand, but Mr. Porter? Apparently the guy's doing hooks on stuff he didn't produce now. Weird. Aside from that, let's assume Jake's beats are consistent from now on, so I can just point out the few that are mired in mediocrity. This joint sounds a lot more like a Wu-Tang standard, which would have made better sense for Raekwon's cameo, along with...I don't know, let's just say Method Man. Mr. Porter's hook is pretty damn appealing, but Sparks' verse just flew under my radar like that Senim Silla solo jawn (eighty points for guessing the origin of that reference).

If this song had existed in 2001, it would have ended up in Jay-Z's The Blueprint inbox faster than a Just Blaze or Kanye West beat created for anyone else on Roc-A-Fella Records (snap!). Its bass, piano and other elements are offset by a completely fucking brilliant sped-up vocal sample, while Freeway puts forth a pretty sporting effort to match its intensity. Except for when he tries to sing.

Winding things up, Jake One supplies a construct of subtle strings, vocals and brief piano and xylophone refrains that creep in, to a rather dull effect. Taking his cue from the lacking energy of the beat, Freeway travels the wrong route here, opting for a more hyped approach than the nostalgia the music actually calls for. The album most definitely should have ended one track ago.

FINAL THOUGHTS: To my surprise, this is by far Freeway's most accomplished effort to date. Freeway takes the high road on The Stimulus Package, trying update his ex-mentor's body of work while attempting to add his own spin. Unfortunately, many of the concepts he tries to execute are lifted directly from Jay-Z's earlier work, or even from other artists in general. It definitely feels like Freeway has grown as a lyricist, and he focuses more on combining an advanced flow with more a precise structure than he's shown in the past. Still, it's the Jake One's beats that make The Stimulus Package a consistent listen throughout without really getting boring. Enough so that I'm questioning why Jake's face doesn't also appear on that album cover, since his contribution was just as important as Free's.

BUY OR BURN? Buy it if you have the cash, especially if you still have some of your tax credit from Obama's own stimulus package left over.

BEST TRACKS: “Stimulus Intro”; “Throw Your Hands Up”; “The Product”; “Microphone Killa”; “Sho Nuff”; “Freakin' the Beat”; “Free People”

-A.R. Marks

(Questions? Comments? Concerns? Leave some comments below.)


  1. Senim Star anyone?

    Dope review.

  2. I fear this is one of them reviews that manages to rouse my curiosity for this album and then the actual album turns up to be a dud ... just like that kid kudi album reader review....

  3. Kid Cudi? Come on guy. This is fucking Freeway we're talking about, not MC Sesame Street.
    Make no mistakes. It might be for the production value and flows more than the lyrics themselves but this album is straight as fuck.

  4. djbosscrewwreckaNovember 08, 2010

    This is a great album. Check out the comment above about production values and flows. Like the review said, it should have both their faces on the cover because Jake One’s consistently high quality production is just as much a part of the success as Freeway’s “comfortable sounding without being in a comfort zone” rhyming. Some people don’t like his voice, but Freeway raps like his life depends on it, which I love.
    One producer + One emcee = An album with a consistent vibe = Quality
    This formula is apparently more difficult than it looks because most artists out there these days don’t seem to get it.
    Anyway, great review, although I thought “Money” was the best tune on the album!

  5. I liked the beats they were consistent all-right, but Freeway's voice was grating on my nerves, plus he doesn't really say anything smart... not hating on the review, just that a better MC could do more justice, instead the album is disappointing coz of wasted musical potential