El Che & the Thriller

[14 February 2008]

By Quentin B. Huff

“People want substance and true art cannot be beaten.”
  —Rhymefest, November 2007

In 2008, Chicago rapper Che Smith, also known as Rhymefest, is looking to make a comeback. Not a “comeback” in the traditional sense, as is the case when an artist is missing in action from the music scene or attempts to recover from a lackluster release. Rhymefest hasn’t kept his considerable microphone skills away for long, since his last outing, Blue Collar, gave us a heavy dose of potent hip-hop. Blue Collar was far from lackluster and has been rated by critics and fans alike as one of the best albums of 2006.

Hip-hoppers know Rhymefest is a gifted lyricist, blending some of the tightest songwriting this side of Gang Starr with his penchant for the memorable punchlines that pepper his freestyles. That’s not as easy to accomplish as one might think. The criticism against Canibus, for example, has been that his intricate and wildly inventive wordplay amount to exciting verbal exercises, but fail to make satisfying songs. Conversely, there’s always been a treasured place in hip-hop for those who succeed in ciphers and battle sessions, where quick wit and impeccable timing make the difference.

Yet as accomplished as Rhymefest is, Blue Collar‘s album sales didn’t match its critical praise. Here, we have the classic situation in which a well-crafted album fails to receive the financial shine it deserves.

At the close of 2007, though, Rhymefest reemerged with vigor, using his MySpace page to outline his upcoming projects and to display his resolve. Specifically, his mission is to pave the way for a “revolution” in hip-hop. The first wave of Rhymefest’s revolution is Man in the Mirror, a tribute to Michael Jackson. Rhymefest promises that a bigger wave will follow when he releases the anticipated follow-up to Blue Collar, called El Che. By the sound of the Man in the Mirror mixtape, 2008 could very well be a great year for Rhymefest.

Aesthetically, Rhymefest lives up to his promises, hosting a lean combination of skits and full compositions. The whole of it hovers slightly below the 45-minute mark and the brevity, relative to the genre’s longer stream-of-consciousness mixtapes, is a smart move.  The caliber of Rhymefest’s verses should generate interest in his future projects without overstaying his welcome.  About a handful of the tracks are full-fledged songs, including the style-switching “Higher” in the mode of Big Daddy Kane but excluding the short rhyme at the end of the “Mike the Mentor” skit.

Emile, Best Kept Secret, and Mark Ronson provide production. Guest vocalists, aside from some copy-and-paste action with the Thriller himself, include Talib Kweli, Daniel Merriweather, Wale, and Dres of Native Tongue affiliate Black Sheep. Many will remember Black Sheep’s ‘90s song “The Choice is Yours”, bearing the recognizable refrain, “You can get with this / or you can get with that”, and especially the song’s revisited version with the continuous grunts and “come ons” in the backdrop.

Conceptually, Man in the Mirror‘s focus on Michael Jackson keeps the mixtape’s various styles and topics in alignment. In the process, Rhymefest confidently rides the trend of hip-hop’s appreciation for Michael Jackson’s accomplishments, balanced against Jackson’s acknowledged weirdness. The approach is fun and refreshing, relative to hip-hop’s usual ways of showing appreciation for the legacy and mythos of the Jackson family. Such appreciation has been displayed through rap cameos, music samples, and lyrical references.

Michael and Janet Jackson are legends in the music field, so it’s no surprise that hip-hop artists would want to work with them. A rap cameo or a remix project could be a big opportunity.

Interestingly, rap cameos in Jackson songs stand out because they aren’t the norm.  Mary J. Blige seems to have a higher comfort level with rap collaborations. Still, an argument could be made that the Jacksons are more hip-hop savvy than their ‘80s counterparts, notably Whitney Houston, Madonna, and Prince.  For Michael Jackson, there are songs like “Jam” (featuring Heavy D), “This Time Around” (featuring the Notorious B.I.G.), and “2Bad” (featuring Shaquille O’Neill, who, along with Vincent Price in “Thriller”, I’m counting as a “hip-hop artist” for the sake of argument). Janet Jackson also worked with Heavy D. for an extended version of “Alright”, and has continued to dabble with hip-hop in songs like the anthem “New Agenda” (featuring Chuck D.) and, more recently, in songs with Nelly (“Call On Me”) and Khia (“So Excited”).

With Man in the Mirror, Rhymefest doesn’t break new ground in terms of actually working with Michael Jackson. Rather, he has crafted what might be called “virtual collaborations”, meshing Jackson’s words with Rhymefest’s lyrics to create a tag team effect. In fact, during the skits, Rhymefest and Jackson sound as if they are having real conversations. The skits, in particular, exude a surreal but funny effect, along the lines of the goofy cartoons on Saturday Night Live that build animated humor around the raw materials of real audio.
At the same time, hip-hop beats based on tunes from Michael Jackson’s discography can be fascinating. There’s the use of the laidback groove in “Liberian Girl” for MC Lyte’s “Keep On, Keepin’ On” and for the posthumous 2pac track “Letter to My Unborn”.  Back in the day, SWV (“Sisters With Voices”) sang over a “Human Nature” sample in their remix of their own “Right Here”. “It Ain’t Hard To Tell”, from Nas’ acclaimed debut Illmatic, also incorporated elements from “Human Nature”. 

Kanye West, often lauded for his clever sampling techniques, spiced up his single “Good Life” with a catchy lick from Jackson’s “P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing)”, while Rihanna’s songwriting team incorporated “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’” into the young singer’s very danceable track “Please Don’t Stop the Music”. In Rihanna’s case, her song’s reference to “stopping” (or, rather, not stopping) could be a subtle play on Jackson’s original “startin’” reference.

Michael Jackson has a well-documented penchant for turning his music into larger-than-life events, spectacles even, including “world premiere” videos that interrupt regularly scheduled television shows. For any rapper choosing to rhyme over Jackson-infused accompaniment, the road is perilous, since there’s rarely a listener—especially a hip-hop listener—who isn’t already familiar with Jackson’s songs. In this case, familiarity breeds an inability to tolerate too much tinkering, and raises the stakes for originality. One example is Square’s “The Mike We Like Remixes”, which faced the difficulties of reworking popular Jackson songs like “Rock With You”, “Billie Jean”, and “Remember the Time”.

Except for revisiting “Can’t Help It” in the mode of De La Soul’s “Breakadawn” and adding some lyrics to “Man in the Mirror”, Rhymefest counters the perils by staying away from the Michael Jackson songs most often associated with the Jackson brand.  Others have also done this to good effect. An example here is the ARE’s Dem Damb Jacksons project, which showcased spectacular innovations on Jackson 5 hits and yielded songs that worked as well, or better, as “plain” instrumentals. Another strong example is J.J. Brown’s Re-Release Therapy, a mash-up album that re-imagines Ludacris’s Release Therapy album with Jackson 5 backing.

Maybe a Jackson 5 sample is the hip-hop producer’s ticket to Neverland.  After all, Jay-Z’s “Izzo”, another Kanye West production, included the Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back” and, back in the ‘90s, Naughty By Nature scored one of hip-hop’s all-time memorable hits with “O.P.P.”, which cleverly flipped the Jackson 5’s “A.B.C.” The Jackson remix bonanza continues in 2008, as hip-hop producers and performers rework a few classic Jacko jams for the 25th Anniversary of Thriller. And before you can say “Ma Ma Se, Ma Ma Sa, Ma Ma Coo Sa”, there’s likely to be another Jackson project underway.

Lyrical references to the Jacksons in hip-hop songs are, of course, easy to spot, whether the rapper is incorporating the title of a well known Jackson song (like when Erick Sermon of EPMD boasts that he’s “bad like Michael Jackson” or Da Brat claims she’s “on a roll in Control like Janet”), analogizing high status in rap to Michael Jackson’s status in pop (as Jay-Z did when he said he was “off the wall like a young Michael Jackson, these other [brothas] is Tito” in “Party Life”), or using Jackson’s much-discussed physical appearance (his face, in particular) as a descriptor (as in “Gold Digger” when Kanye West rhymed that the woman who got “lipo with your money” was “walking around looking like Michael with your money”).

For his mixtape, Rhymefest plays on Jackson song titles too, evidenced by songs such as “Man in the Mirror” and “Dancin’ Machine”.  But he also ventures into an explicit comparison of his status in rap to Michael’s iconic music status in “Breakadawn”, mentioning his accomplishments in rap alongside Michael’s astronomical album sales, moonwalking, and ownership interest in the Beatles catalog.

Last year, Wu-Tang affiliate Cilvaringz’s song, “Forever Michael (Wacko Tablo)”, was unabashedly pro-Jackson, stating his case for why Michael Jackson is the “greatest entertainer of all time”.  Unlike Cilvaringz’s unequivocal praise, Rhymefest slyly channels the ambivalence some fans have toward the proclaimed King of Pop. During one skit, “Mike the Mentor”, Rhymefest expresses his bewilderment over hip-hop’s cookie cutter imagery: “If you ain’t shootin’ people or sellin’ a lot of dope, it’s like you’re not ‘hood’, you’re not ‘black’ enough.” He seeks advice from Michael, whose responses are rather thoughtfully spliced together. Contrast this with “Flip It Skit”, in which Rhymefest suggests that they “flip the flow” of the mixtape and Michael’s response is, “I wouldn’t have a problem with elephants and giraffes and crocodiles and tigers and lions.” Rhymefest’s response is an incredulous, “What? What are you talkin’ about, G? Ain’t nobody talkin’ about no animals, homie.”

It is in Rhymefest’s role as multi-dimensional Jackson fan that distinguishes the effort. We are all familiar with Jackson’s music and his accomplishments, yet most of us are unfamiliar with Michael Jackson the man. Opinions vary on specific aspects of his life and career, whether the discussion involves his parenting skills, finances, dance moves, or his physical appearance. Some celebrities create controversy. Others become embroiled in it. Michael Jackson is a special case because it seems his very existence is controversial. Many of us who enjoy Jackson’s music might disagree about the direction of his career or which song is his best, but we tend to agree that he’s “different”, perhaps “weird”, “other than”, and “strange”. 

That’s why the cover of Man in the Mirror is so interesting, showing what looks like Michael Jackson with his back to the viewer. He’s looking into a mirror and, instead of Michael Jackson’s face, we see Rhymefest staring back. Certainly, the artwork illustrates the idea that Jackson’s legacy is reflected in today’s music landscape, from Akon to Zion-I. But maybe it also suggests that we are all a little “different” or “weird”, although we don’t all have amusement parks in our backyards and we aren’t all inextricably linked to the Elephant Man’s bones. Maybe the image is a reminder that Jackson’s accomplishments represent creative and artistic heights that exist despite the quirks and differences. Perhaps the lesson is that we should strive to exhibit those virtues and to bring forth the best in ourselves.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/column/el-che-the-thriller/