Rhymefest, government name Che Smith, is the sort of rapper we’d like to champion. Coming up as a battle rapper in Chicago before eventually out-dueling Eminem at the 1997 Scribble Jam, Rhymefest didn’t secure himself a strong record deal until fellow-Chicagoan Kanye West established his G.O.O.D. Music label and decided to make the “Jesus Walks” co-writer his label’s flagship rapper. The result was 2006’s Blue Collar, a well-intentioned and professional first effort that went unnoticed in the market place. The slow sales resulted in a five-year gestation period for its follow-up: it’s a horror story that seems to happen in hip-hop more than anywhere else.
It’d be nice to see Rhymefest avoid the sophomore slump after such a long absence from the public eye (he was last seen dissing Charles Hamilton of all people), but what starts out as another enjoyably workmanlike effort quickly dissolves into generic if not plain awful music. Symbolyc One has received a lot of press lately for his bombastic re-working of a King Crimson jam for Kanye West’s latest single, “Power”, but his efforts on “One Arm Push Up” and “How High” are more pedestrian efforts that feel light on budget and lighter on style. “Chocolates” is even worse; quite honestly, just one listen ought to confirm it as one of the worst joints you’re likely to hear this year.
There are some highlights, though. Scram Jones, whom Rhymefest collaborated with on last year’s The Manual mixtape, drops a scorcher with “Last Night”. Rymefest weaves a drunken tale slightly reminiscent of Wale’s “90210” over a dizzying production that completely matches Rhymefest’s imagery. It’s the only song on the disc that completely comes together, but the two Best Kept Secret-helmed tracks, especially the smokey barroom jazz vibe of “City Is Falling”, have Rhymefest sounding the best he can. Scram’s other two tracks are highlights as well, with “Give It to Me” in particular standing out for awakening Rhymefest and adding the similarly outcast Saigon for a verse. Too often, though, Rhymefest is stuck sounding a little corny, or like a sidekick. His flow on this album just isn’t appealing in a way that’s difficult to figure, but it’s similar to the way Will Smith sounds. There’s a lack of edge to his delivery, something that he apparently isn’t as able to overcome as well as a similar artist like Kam Moye.
Fans of mature hip-hop will have something to get here: Rhyme’s oozing in positivity and Afro-centricity. But I’m personally a little bored with the references to label drama, former relationship with Kanye and Rhyme’s dips into battle rap and reggae crossover that mess with the flow and appeal of the album. El Che lacks anything that could be considered fresh or exciting in 2010; it sounds five years late and suffers for it, especially when Rhymefest is noticeably less interesting than he was last decade. This album did grow on me a little over the past month, as I slowly grew from thinking it was absolutely horrible to coming to terms with its shortcomings and realizing Rhymefest’s core base will definitely get something out of this. But myself, and perhaps most people? Been here, heard this. A solid closing set isn’t enough to clear the first 30-some minutes of all their flaws, big and small.