Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Freeway & Jake One - The Stimulus Package | Album Review

Freeway & Jake One
The Stimulus Package
Rhymesayers Entertainment


The Roc-A-Fella creed during the early 2000’s was simple: dominate the game. Like Wu-Tang and No Limit before them, the leader(s) of the pack were easily distinguishable. But at the end of the day, it was always a team sport. Jay-Z, the MVP and future all-star, was accompanied by a roster of talented role players (Bleek, Sigel, Freeway and Kanye) and a solid bench (the rest of State Property). It seemed like there was either a new album or single tearing up the charts each month. Of course, Jay was the human highlight reel. But commendable (and often overlooked) gems by his teammates shone bright as well, Freeway’s debut album being a key example. Philadelphia Freeway featured all the big names like Nelly and Snoop and it had Just Blaze in his prime handling the boards. Quality wasn’t held back one bit. If it was a Jay-Z album, it would’ve been considered one of his finest. And therein lies the predicament that Freeway (and Memphis Bleek and Beanie Sigel) found – and continues to find – himself in: they weren’t really “changing the game”. No, they were simply riding along Jay-Z’s wave. They never defined themselves apart from Jay’s image and brand. Kanye West was the only Roc-A-Fella artist who successfully stepped out of Jay-Z’s ominous shadow. Call it the gift and the curse.

If any artist of the old Roc Army has been trying their hardest to emblazon a new image for themselves post-Dynasty breakup, it’s Freeway. From his Month of Madness campaign to a growing internet following, Freeway has managed to evolve alongside a changing musical landscape. His move to Rhymesayers is definitely a good look – they’re one of the hippest independent hip hop labels to call home. Freeway’s latest challenge – unmet thus far – is redefining his persona as an artist.

Take Brother Ali, for example. He’s a skilled emcee who can approach the mic from many different angles, but he chooses what he’s good at. He discusses his faith. He digs deep into politics. He’ll unleash his fair share of braggadocio from time to time, but his raps are fairly niche: he’s a “conscious/backpack rapper”. At first, that may seem a bit artistically constricting – but it might not be such a bad thing. Jay-Z or even Raekwon hold tight to their status as “Don” rappers (for lack of a better word). They’re known best for what they do and what they do best is what they’re known for. Freeway finds himself on the opposite end of this spectrum. He’s known for having an “ambidextrous flow.” He’s practically indefinable. That’s a problem.

Misguided, misdirected, and lacking a central theme and focus, The Stimulus Package is far from the blue-collar manifesto its concept album-like title suggests. The tracks sling back and forth from menacing threats, tales of sexual exploits, drug narratives and paper stacking flashiness. All the while Freeway strings along these subjects with vague and useless isms: “Who’s bad? I’m bad/ I am Michael Jackson, Puff Daddy Bad/”; “Take a smell/ Sniff from the shit like feces/ The GT too quick/”. At times, Freeway seems fixated on light-hearted, catchy hip-pop. Other times, it’s evident that he’s trying to be like Raekwon with the gritty narratives. Case in point, The Stimulus Package fails where Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, Pt. II succeeds: solidity. The only thing holding this project together are Jake One’s soulful beats. I’m tempted to call this All in a Day’s Work, Pt. 2.

Free and Jake’s collaboration is a nice exercise in emcee/producer chemistry and highlights the importance of this generally successful dynamic. But overall, the package itself is far from stimulating [||].