Hip-hop has had issues with age for most of its history. The genre itself, now in its 30s, is certainly mature, but it's still considered a young man's game, to such an extent that even at the height of his powers Jay-Z resorted to trend-piece platitudes like "30's the new 20" to justify his continued existence. And until recently there have been few rappers old enough to rent a car who've done much to change that perception. LL Cool J and Busta Rhymes managed to stay on the charts into their 30s by chasing the latest sounds, but most of their contemporaries have had to choose between retirement or purgatory labels like Priority and Koch.
Lately some hip-hop elders have been staging comebacks, though, reclaiming some of their relevance and audience—and they're doing it without even trying to adapt to the music's current sound. Two of the best rap albums of 2009 were from members of the Wu-Tang Clan: Raekwon's Only Built 4 Cuban Linx . . . Pt. II, which Pitchfork named its number five album of the year, and Ghostface Killah's Ghostdini: Wizard of Poetry in Emerald City. The latter is a soul-drenched ode to grown-ass living, while the former is a direct sequel, sonically and thematically, to a 14-year-old album. And the first hip-hop album to generate any serious buzz in 2010 is by a 34-year-old rapper who sounds exactly the same as he did seven years ago, when he had the only major success of his career with a debut that just barely went gold—and he's teamed up with a producer who specializes in the sounds of hip-hop two decades old.
Most of the world first heard Philadelphia Freeway on "1-900-Hustler," a track from Jay-Z's 2000 album The Dynasty: Roc la Familia—that is, right around the time the chart viability of gritty, soul-heavy boom-bap was dealt a mortal blow by synthy ringtone rap. Like any worthwhile MC given a high-profile guest spot, Freeway came on hard, ferociously determined to steal the spotlight, and the effort paid off; he was signed to Jay's Roc-a-Fella Records, which released his self-titled gold debut and 2007's Free at Last, which suffered from delays and infighting at Roc-a-Fella and sold only about 100,000 copies.
When Freeway first got started it was easier to imagine he could do some real commercial damage, but if there was ever a good time to be an aggressive, bearded rapper who doesn't give a fuck if his songs get girls moving in the club—a Muslim, he's pretty serious about his faith and frames his lyrics about his life on the streets and his prowess as an MC in terms of a spiritual journey—then 50 Cent and the Neptunes pretty much ended it.
All of which might explain why Freeway sounds hungrier than ever on The Stimulus Package, a full-length collaboration with Seattle-based producer Jake One and his first album for Rhymesayers, the indie label cofounded by Slug from Atmosphere. All the time Freeway has spent watching popular tastes drift away seems to have redoubled his resolve to dominate the attention of anyone who's actually paying attention to him. "Microphone Killa," featuring fellow Philadelphian Young Chris, is a classic piece of hip-hop self-advertising, listing the various ways in which Freeway is superior to all other MCs, and the execution makes it hard to argue. His delivery—forcible, clipped—has always given his words a tangible heft, but rarely more so than when he switches into double-time to declare, "Find 'em all, line 'em up, pick 'em up / You say they got the sickest mouth, no doubt / Grind 'em up, kick 'em out." He spits these lines in the raw-edged voice of a man who does most of his rapping in sidewalk ciphers, without a mike to help him cut through the street noise.
Of course it's not just Freeway's name on the cover of The Stimulus Package. (With its award-worthy stack-of-bills packaging by former Ego Trip art director Brent Rollins, it's the rare rap album best bought on CD.) Jake One is best known for his 2008 debut White Van Music, an excellent collection of unflashy roughneck beats similar to those that undergirded New York hip-hop in its late-90s heyday—heavily rock-inflected drums, tweaked soul samples, funk-guitar stabs—topped with rhymes by a mix of indie MCs (Slug, Brother Ali) and graduates of the old school (Freeway, Busta, M.O.P.). In other words, this album is as synergistic a combination of producer and rapper as you could hope for. The bouncy, hooky "One Foot In" serves up bumps of bass that Freeway ducks through like they're a jungle gym, and the insistently driving "Sho' Nuff" (with Bun B) has a blaxpoitation-soundtrack feel that, combined with Freeway's emphatic cadences, transcends the song's simple lyrics about grudges and boasts to make it anthemic.
For a long time Freeway's career was seen even by his fans mostly as a cautionary tale—he was just another artist with the talent and connections to be huge, left scrambling on the edge of obscurity on account of bad luck and industry politics. If that hardship is what it took to wring a record as good as The Stimulus Package out of him, I'm sure that Freeway, as philosophical as he can be, is grateful for it. It gave him something to prove, and he proved it.
Song of the Year (So Far)
Not to pull a Pitchfork, but even though it's only February I already have a strong contender for best song of the year. At the beginning of the month Erykah Badu posted the single "Jump Up in the Air (Stay There)" on her Web site, and two weeks later she followed up with its kaleidoscopic video. Even if it doesn't end up being my absolute favorite track of 2010, it'll almost certainly be the most compelling thing I hear.
"Jump" is a reimagining of hip-hop as startling and addictive as Snoop and the Neptunes' "Drop It Like It's Hot." It starts off with a bottom-heavy beat—mostly thudding, blurry low-end drums, with just a hand clap where the snare belongs—and woozy blurts of portamento synth. Badu and fellow neosoul icon Bilal come in with a refrain ("I know you want to / Jump up in the air and stay there") that turns out to account for most of the song's lyrics. Their lusty voices aren't precisely in time or robotically in tune, and it's almost shocking what a visceral relief it is to hear actual human singing in such a setting—modern pop and R & B have been overtaken almost completely by quantized, cut-and-pasted, Auto-Tuned productions. A small string section adds a minor-key scale that climbs one note per bar, spiking the song's thick, stony vibe with a hint of anxiety, and the scratched whoo punctuating the verses has to be the best use of a DJ in a pop song since OutKast's "Bombs Over Baghdad."
Things crescendo until about halfway through, when Lil Wayne steps in for the bridge and melts the song down into a Weezy-shaped mold with one of the best 16 bars he's spat in recent memory. Floating in the same airspace from which he rapped "I Feel Like Dying," he dizzily declares that he'll "Get into your soul like Ne-Yo / Wee-yo / Oh, I meant 'oh-wee' / Or is it 'ooh-wee?'"
Then everything comes back in, full force if not harder, and as Badu leads the song out she carries the banner of not giving a fuck and being on the silly stuff (to paraphrase the lyrics). At this point your speakers should be rattling. When the track starts fading out, the best thing to do is reach for the button to start it again.