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Freeway & Jake One - The Stimulus Package

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Artist: Freeway & Jake One

Album: The Stimulus Package

Label: Rhymesayers

Review date: Feb. 19, 2010

In the 13 months since Barack Obama’s inauguration, we’ve seen the rise of an ever more politicized culture in America. Hip hop has been no exception to this. And why would it be? The President of the United States – literally, the most powerful person on the planet – is not just a black man, but someone genuinely in touch with his constituency, his community and, especially, young folks. Here’s a public figure who speaks to the press about listening to Jay-Z on his iPod and clearly issn’t bullshitting; a politician who, in the most publicized and fiery and vengeful election in history, was unafraid to show up in photographs with Ludacris, he of “Move Bitch, Get out the Way” and the repeated target of Fox News’s screaming heads.

Obama follows hip hop and, in return, hip hop has followed him. Young Jeezy started with The Recession. Now Freeway, alongside G-Unit producer Jake One, returns with The Stimulus Package. (Let’s hope Drake doesn’t follow up with The Public Option.) To be sure, the politics of an album like The Stimulus Package may amount to little more than sloganeering. “Still rob from the rich and give to the poor / represent for all my wolves shackled up and locked up,” Freeway (née Leslie Pridgen) exclaims on the pitched anthem “Throw Your Hands Up.” But to his credit, Freeway’s punditry is more coherent than the non-sequitur of, say, Jeezy’s “My president is black / my lambo is blue.”

Freeway has always been socially minded to a degree. His 2002 single, “What We Do,” was a brilliant double-entrendre. Although ostensibly a lament about the crime that chronic poverty all but compels, the track was also inspired, even prideful. The chorus, a loop chiming “Even though what we do is wrong,” could be taken as an expression of contrition or defiance — crime may be terrible, the song admitted, but if that’s what it takes to survive, then so be it. And The Stimulus Package finds him working the angles as sharply as ever. On this album, he swings like a trapeze artist between the extremes of solemn commentary and hardboiled boasting.

Freeway assumes his pulpit most confidently on the final song, “Outro.” Although hip hop introductions and epilogues tend to be ignorable, Freeway’s “Outro” is no filler. In it, he fictionalizes several messages received from fans, using his stardom as a prism to relate to his audience. Just as the president gets his 10 letters a day, Freeway creates his own missives to show that his finger is on the American pulse. That could come off as cheap populism or, as Eminem proved a decade ago, a clever narrative device. In Freeway’s rendition, it’s somewhere in the middle. A representative passage from one correspondent:

    “I’m out here raising two adolescents / one son, one daughter – Free, I’m just like you / Only difference is that I don’t get them checks like you / The other night I was getting reckless, I snatched a dude’s necklace / Now I’m on the low, the hood’s crime-infested / If you take a nigga’ s necklace, they’ll be looking for you / It’s like that song by you and Beans, they’ll be coming for you / Gunning for you.”

Now, you could take a stanza like that as being more than a little gauche – if you’re going to make up your fans’ reactions to your music, is it really necessary to gloat about your earnings and shout-out your previous material? More vexing, still, is “Outro”‘s blatant circularity: Freeway is proving his realness by – wait for it! – quoting fake letters written by figures of his imagination. But despite the ploy, the song isn’t entirely hollow. Of course, nothing in "Outro" can be fact-checked. Nonetheless, there are moments, as in the best realist fiction, that have the ring of truth. For even the greatest skeptic of Freeway’s intentions can’t deny that times are hard in urban America and that, for many, music can make life more bearable. That, and nothing more, is Freeway’s point.

But if “Outro” reads like letters to the editor, much of The Stimulus Package is pulled straight from the tabloids. “She Makes Me Feel Alright,” in which Jake One pilfers Rick James’s “Mary Jane,” makes for a dry player’s ball. It’s not just the triteness of the imagery or the too-familiar reduction of a woman to her sexual proclivities — it’s the fact that Freeway, raspy and always exerting himself to the point of wheezing, lacks the smoothness to make the song as credible or fun as it should be.

Although “She Makes Me Feel Alright” seems like a put-on, “Know What I Mean,” registers like an imbedded reporter’s notes. And despite its sincerity, it also fails to be all that it could. In Freeway’s telling, the lessons learned — don’t carry wads of cash on the corner; find a girl you can trust and put all your money in her name — are smartly specific but too predictable. At this point, the "Ten Crack Commandments" don’t need an extra tablet.

Freeway is at his best on “Free People,” toward The Stimulus Package‘s conclusion. That song showcases, not coincidentally, the best performance and insight he has to offer. There is barely a drum beat to the song; instead, Freeway raps quietly about the life of the black working class. Take this exchange between the song’s narrator and his boy: “‘Did we make it to the top dad?’ / My bad / Nah son, we made it to the middle / Getting paid a little / So you know what that means? You can play a little / But I still gotta work a lot, close the locks / They can see me in the two, think I’m worth a lot / But if they try to take you, I’m a hurt the block.”

The words on the page are not overwhelming in their poetry. Yet, in Freeway’s delivery, they take on added significance. The speaker in “Free People” is keenly aware that he didn’t make as much as he wanted, but remains protective, even violently so, of what he has. More impressive than the sobriety of the filial exchange, however, is the dignity Freeway recognizes in his narrator. In contrast to peers who seem to respect excess above much else, Freeway offers a hushed and overdue acknowledgement of the everyman and his travails. In 2010 — in the wake of a decade of fantastical spending, and in the face of a political system seemingly cut off from the interests of average citizens — the serenity of “Free People” is perhaps the strongest stimulus that a rapper like Freeway could provide.

By Ben Yaster

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