The hip-hop vet teams with producer Jake One to bring us his first album since 2007.
It only takes one line from Freeway’s new album The Stimulus Package (out Tues., Feb. 16) to illustrate the hirsute Muslim’s lyrical dexterity.
Free’s plotting the murder of someone who’s wronged him. He’s getting antsy. A trial is coming up, and he’s worried his mark will take him down from the witness stand. Free’ll have to make his move, and soon. Or, as he puts it, “Homicide him with a rifle/ Make sure the job is done before he be rattin’ like Fievel.”
The Stimulus Package is full of tiny treasures like that one, no song more so than the one featuring that line, the incomparable “Never Gonna Change.” On it, Freeway raps over stutter-step military-style drums on the march to war, xylophone and gorgeous orchestral strings, as a woman sings the song’s title in a hypnotic monotone, beating the three words into you on purpose.
The allusion to a childhood movie isn’t an accident, either; elsewhere in the track Freeway hijacks the children’s classic “Row Your Boat” and takes the time to play some metaphorical Connect Four and Battleship.
He sprints through about nine different emotions on “Change”—anger, fear, elation, apprehension, guilt, etc.—in close to four minutes, tattooing each to your brain with his rich and raspy bulldog’s bark, all to express one unifying theme: hopelessness.
The way things are now as a grown-ass man are the way they were when you were watching that Russian mouse earn his American Tail . “Shit ain’t never gonna change,” Freeway says, half-defeated, half-accepting, striking the same heartbreaking note as The Wire’s Bodie when he realizes, in much the same tone, “The game is rigged, man.”
The song and the album represent a new career benchmark for Freeway and the producer responsible for it, Seattle’s Jake One (not that either needed one). Free and Jake have worked together before—on Freeway’s Roc-A-Fella farewell (more on that in a sec) in 2007 and Jake One’s criminally overlooked 2008 album White Van Music —but the’ve both really hit their stride on Package , a collaborative effort from start to finish whereupon the two share equal billing.
“I think he’s one of the most slept on, underrated producers in the game right now,” Freeway says of Jake from his home in Philadelphia. “He’s great. His beats are incredible. His music challenges me and makes me wanna work. It’s a good marriage. I haven’t felt that chemistry with a producer since Just Blaze.”
High praise, indeed—and truly deserved. Jake started producing in the late ’90s, but hit the mainstream hard in ’04 with stellar production on tracks for the likes of 50 Cent, De La Soul and MF Doom. His style is distinct—a fifty fifty mix of old school samples and beats built from the ground up. Often it’s tough to tell which is which. The Stimulus Package intro, for instance, sounds like an old Sound of Philadelphia record: it’s not. Jake built it with a laptop and studio musicians.
The style suits Freeway.
“He’s good at hearing a beat and coming up with his own flow for it,” says Jake of one of his favorite rappers, returning Freeway’s compliment from his home in Seattle. “He has a different way of hearing things. He’s willing to try anything.”
And how. When Freeway isn’t pounding you lyrically, he’s mauling you with his delivery. He draws out some words, chops others short. He sucks air, even while extending verses long enough to give the impression that he doesn’t need to breathe. He’s quick. He’s slow. At times, he’s both in the same bar: lyrical gymnastics. He wields “one of hip-hop’s truly distinctive voices,” according to Rolling Stone .
On Package he illustrates just how disctinctive while rapping alongside titans like Wu-Tang Clan’s Raekwon, Bun B of the legendary UGK, Birdman and Philly stalwarts Young Chris and Beanie Sigel. “I think the thing that surprised me the most was how willing he was to take my input, even on how to build a song,” says Jake. “That’s rare. A lot of rappers have a big ego and don’t want the producer giving them any advice on how they want certain things to go on a song. That was a big key to the success of this album and why it came out a certain way.”
Freeway has been around enough big egos to learn from them—to know what to take notice of and what to disregard. Just a few short years ago he was part of Damon Dash’s and Jay Z’s high-powered Roc-A-Fella crew, of course, which was chalking up hits faster than it handed out the coveted Roc diamond necklace, the then hip-hop equivalent of being a made man.
Now that particular Family has gone to pot, the label’s stars either in witness protection (Memphis Bleek), on soul-searching sabbatical (Kanye West) or gunning for their former boss’s seat (Beanie Sigel). This Roc has rolled ... very quickly ... into a ditch.
Enter Rhymesayers, an indie dynamo from the surprising hip-hop hotbed of Minneapolis. For Stimulus they’ve given Freeway and Jake One complete creative freedom, something both relish after serving time in the impersonal majors.
“I definitely feel more of an attachment to it—1,000 times more of an attachment to it—with Rhymesayers than when working with a bigger label,” says Jake. “When I do stuff for some of these [bigger, mainstream] artists, I’m so far removed, I basically just send them a beat. But with [ White Van Music , also on Rhymesayers] and this one I have more of a direct connection with the artist. I’m more emotionally invested in it.”
Freeway seconds that emotion. “It’s more intimate. I’m more hands-on with the projects,” he says of his time with Rhymesayers. “It’s a more personal feeling. It’s just, I feel like I’m working.”
Finally, evidence that some version of the stimulus is working. ■
Mon., Feb. 15, 9pm. $14. With Jake One, Meek Millz + Brother Ali. Trocadero, 1003 Arch St. 215.922.6888. thetroc.com
PW's Music Issue 2014