It must mean something that a rapper whose debut sold over 500,000 copies on a major label needs to move to an independent label to release his third album. Yet such is the case for Philadelphia's Freeway, who signed to indie stalwart Rhymesayers (home of Brother Ali, Atmosphere, and P.O.S) for The Stimulus Package, a record that barely resembles the label's others albums, and features verses from Raekwon, Beanie Sigel, Bun B, and Birdman, and, in fact, whose only sign of the Minneapolis imprint is full production from Jake One, who also contributed a track to Freeway's 2007 Def Jam release Free at Last.
Rhymesayers is clearly going for the mainstream hip-hop crowd that's grown tired of the infrequency of quality releases coming from the majors, but isn't quite ready to embrace backpacker status. And The Stimulus Package, in fact, is the perfect album for this transition, a smart yet hard-edged record that stays with you. Much of this is due to Jake One, whose production credits range from G-Unit to Strange Fruit Project, and whose versatility allows Freeway room to focus on his rhymes without having to worry about the constraint of his flow. (The rapper is clearly aware of Jake's talents, as well: the album starts out with him telling Beanie Sigel to "let the beat breathe," and the producer plays a starring role in the narrative of "Freekin' the Beat.") But Freeway himself more than holds up his own end, contributing lines that are as good as anything he's done ("I got 99 problems but my rhyme is not a problem," he says in "One Foot In," a sly rip on his former label) -- his nasally, Ghostface-esque voice blending well with Jake's beats as he rhymes about everything from religion to hip-hop to sex to his own abilities to snitching to his fans. "Stimulus package" here doesn't refer to money, at least not -- despite the packaging -- more than superficially. Sure, Freeway doesn't shy away from talking about cash, but even when he does, he's talking about more than that. "Money," featuring Omillio Sparks and Mr. Porter, is less about getting rich than just paying the bills, and in "Follow My Moves," while Birdman offers a relatively weak verse listing brand names and expensive items, Freeway addresses the idea of wealth with more nuance: "This is Birdman, and Philly Free, we are eating, getting money off of words man/Come a long way from flipping birds man," less interested in the final result than by how he got there. The Stimulus Package is, in fact, at least as Freeway explains it in "Stimulus Outro," about "all the fans giving this love and now we giving it back." But it's also a much-needed jolt that hip-hop -- both mainstream and indie -- needs, about bringing the best of both sides together into something that everyone can unite behind.