Kanye West’s debut album The College Dropout may have been a hit because of its consistantly brilliant production, but what made it an instant classic and a critical success was Kanye’s believable but contradictory everyman persona. He was the rare rapper who could name-drop designer clothes, welfare, Jesus, and strippers all in the same breath, blending morality, amorality, arrogance, humility, and raw ambition into a mix that was, in the end, more human than anything else. While it was a surprisingly potent mix, it proved hard for him to repeat on the follow-up, Late Registration, which kept the production gorgeous but skewed more towards the arrogant and flashy aspects of his personality, ditching much of his charisma and appeal in the process. Enter fellow Chicago rapper Rhymefest, co-winner of the songwriting Grammy for Kanye’s own “Jesus Walks” (spurring controversy over just how much each wrote), and his national debut LP, Blue Collar. And enter renewed controversy over just how much of Kanye’s first album Rhymefest really did write.
His personality throughout Blue Collar is, much like College Dropout-era Kanye, one of contradiction and humanity. But where Kanye obsessed over the luxury lifestyle and hyping himself, Rhymefest offers better flows and lyricism instead, like a harder-edged, real-school-hip-hop version with a bigger heart. Where Kanye was the fresh-faced, self-assured newcomer on the fast track to stardom, Rhymefest is the tired veteran that just hasn’t gotten his due yet. Tracks like “Chicago Rillas” and “Fever” are straight-up hip-hop boasting and self-aggrandizement, and ‘Fest holds his own well even in these forays from his more distinctive style, proving his original pedigree as a battle rapper. His voice is a uniquely expressive instrument, alternately energetic and tired, cracking around the edges and dripping weary charisma; when he turns this to deeper tracks, which he does fairly often on Blue Collar, it makes for a powerful punch.
“Dynomite (Going Postal)”, the first true song of the album, is a fiery, urgent banger of raw unrest, the dramatic beat punching stormily while Rhymefest mixes powerfully rebellious imagery with social critiques as he thunderously delivers lines like “Open my palm, bitch, I got the world in my hand, / Got a gun and a plan, I got the Torah and the Koran”. The energy it builds gets subverted into the catchy bounce of the Kanye-produced-and-featuring “Brand New”, a solid single that’s actually not one of the album’s more memorable moments. “More” is a better Kanye-Rhymefest duet, relegating the former to the chorus and production and letting the star of this album tear into societal issue after issue with heartfelt emotion and humor at the same time, dispensing advice and revealing the hard economic truths of the music industry even as he (gasp!) advocates condom usage. “All Girls Cheat” is Rhymefest’s “Gold Digger”, a chance for him to take an aspect of dating (women cheating) and cleverly elaborate on it with deft punchlines and jokes throughout the song (“I ain’t tryin’ to tell you that you’re wrong for keepin’ her, / All I’m tryin’ to say is you don’t own her, you leasin’ her”).
Rhymefest preaches without seeming preachy, coming across like everyone’s favorite uncle: wise, funny, sheerly likable. The production, while (not unexpectedly) not on the level of The College Dropout‘s, ranges from solid to great and provides a fitting backing for Rhymefest’s vocals: “These Days” is a pitch-perfect, addictively-sampled Mark Ronson saunter that Rhymefest absolutely kills, and “Devil’s Pie”, built off a sample of The Strokes’ “Someday” that just shouldn’t work, somehow works ridiculously well. The track opens with a clip of the original version by the Strokes that fizzles out to silence, then recuts the guitars into a punchy, definitively “hip-hop” gem of transcendence that manages to capture perfectly the original’s vibe while at the same time turning it into something entirely different:
George Bush, step up, and get you a slice, /
Tony Blair, step up, and get you a slice, /
Rumsfeld, step up, and get you a slice, /
Condi Rice, step up, and get you a slice… /
Of the devil’s pie,”
On the one hand he lambastes modern politics, but then immediately flips it to show the faults in all of us: “Wait, I’ma step up, and get me a slice, / My baby momma stepped up, and got her a slice, / Everybody step up, and get you a slice”. Then he poignantly narrates visiting his father in jail, all over the head-bobbing Strokes guitars.
The final track, “Build Me Up” with the late Ol’ Dirty Bastard, is a masterpiece of Rhymefest’s charismatic appeal. He tells a story of his dating troubles over a wonderfully bouncy guitar / piano beat: solid but standard Rhymefest here so far. Then, on the sublimely discordant chorus, he brings in Ol’ Dirty to belt out the chorus from the karaoke-and-Richard-Simmons standard “Build Me Up, Buttercup” with a complete disregard for tonality and conventional musical beauty but with the one aspect that this album has in spades: sheer heart. Friendly, hopeful (without overlooking the realities of life), and fun: Kanye’s fanbase may have their Lacoste logos and expensive cellphones, but Rhymefest’s “blue collar niggas” have soul.
Rhymefest - Fever
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