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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

These are hard times for hip-hop. After skyrocketing sales at the beginning of the last decade, interest in hip-hop CDs is now plummeting along with general CD sales. So, Philadelphia rapper Freeway and Seattle producer Jake One have come up with a novel response. Their new collaboration, "Stimulus Package," comes with some of the most elaborate packaging ever designed for a hip-hop album.

But reviewer Oliver Wang says it may not be enough to bring consumers back to physical CDs.

OLIVER WANG: You're not supposed to judge a book - or album - by its cover, but desperate times call for creative measures.

(Soundbite of song, "Throw Your Hands Up")

FREEWAY (Rapper): (Singing) Now, everybody throw your hands up. It's the stimulus package. Now, throw your hands up. We're giving back to the people. Now, throw your hands up if you're rocking with Jake One, the Philly Freezer.

WANG: "The Stimulus Package" arrives as a folded wad of oversized paper bills, each bearing the face of either Freeway or Jake One; on the backs are the liner notes. The actual CD fits snugly inside a faux wallet whose billfold will hold the paper money. There's an added bonus: a black credit card with instructions to download the instrumental version of the album. If nothing else, "The Stimulus Package" holds up the package side of the equation.

(Soundbite of song, "Throw Your Hands Up")

FREEWAY: (Singing) I had my walkman in my pocket, used to hop on the bus. I used to rock it, used to knock until the mix tape popped. Tribe Called Quest and Black Sheep was knocking to us. Yeah, Leaders of the New, I'm from the old school, about to bring y'all people new school hip-hop you can trust.

WANG: Just a few years ago, Freeway was part of Jay-Z's seemingly insoluble Roc-A-Fella family, while producer Jake One crafted beats for 50 Cent and the G-Unit. Now, both are independents, trying to survive the rap industry's implosion. This change in fortune does not go unmentioned.

(Soundbite of music)

FREEWAY: (Singing) And my kids still asking are we there yet? Did we make it to the top, dad? My bad. We just made it to the middle. Getting paid a little. So, you know what that means? Y'all can play a little.

WANG: "The Stimulus Package" is a compelling gambit, an attempt to puncture through digitally induced apathy by convincing hip-hop fans to actually care about a physical CD again. But what about the music?

(Soundbite of song, "Microphone Killa")

FREEWAY: (Singing) Microphone killer, microphone killer. Swifter than the breeze, I will Swiss cheese emcees. Find 'em all, line 'em up, pick 'em up, You say they got the sickest mouth, no doubt, grind 'em up, kick 'em out. And that's one thing that they hate about me, I body emcees, send 'em back to the paper route...

WANG: In contrast to the innovative outer shell, the album's 15-song interior is more familiar and conventional, a workhorse effort of consistency from two hip-hop veterans. The pair do what they do best; and for Freeway, that means rhyming with an impassioned - some might say anguished - delivery about rap, sex, guns and, especially, drugs.

(Soundbite of song, "The Product")

FREEWAY: (Singing) Yes, I am the product, I am the narcotic. That's right, the world's depending on me. Yes, I am the product, instead of hooked on phonics, I got everybody hooked on me. Yes, I'm the product. I am the narcotic. I got all these rappers working for me. Yes, I'm the product, I am like the chronic. I got Dr. Dre detoxin off me...

WANG: If Freeway's topical range shares much in common with the ghetto dramas of the blaxploitation era, Jake One fittingly mines the catalog of '70s and '80s soul for his inspirations. It's a more austere sound compared with some of Freeway's plusher past efforts, but these are leaner times after all, and Jake shows some deft recycling skill in transforming past classics into something new.

(Soundbite of song, "She Makes Me Feel Alright")

Mr. RICK JAMES (Late Singer): (Singing) She makes me feel all right. She makes me feel all right. She makes me feel all right. She makes me feel all right.

WANG: It's encouraging to think that other artists might follow Freeway and Jake One and restore some luster to the long-faded craft of cover-art design. Better packaging won't save the music industry, but if "The Stimulus Package" heads the charge for a last stand, at least Freeway and Jake One lead with a noble step forward.

(Soundbite of music)

NORRIS: Our reviewer Oliver Wang runs the audio blog soul-sides.com.

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