Post-Kanye Chicago Rap Saves Rap

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Rhymefest: Best rectangle-headed rapper ever?

I never really expected to care about Rhymefest. For one thing, his name is Rhymefest, and that's about the worst, most generic rap name I've ever heard. For another, he had the choice to sign with either Kanye West or rich kid-turned-celebrity DJ Mark Ronson, and he chose the latter, which seems like the sort of thing you settle for if you're fine being an also-ran for the rest of your life. And Rhymefest has been around forever, running through the midwestern battle-rap circuit around the same time as pre-Slim Shady Eminem, and he still hasn't released an album. He cowrote "Jesus Walks" and won a Grammy for it, but any cultural currency that came with that expired almost two years ago, and we've heard about a million stories of ghostwriters who couldn't make it as rappers. On this one mixtape I heard, he did this thing where he did frighteningly accurate impressions of Ghostface and 50 Cent battling each other, but that sort of attention-grabbing stunt is exactly the sort of last-ditch effort that rappers pull out when they know nobody's going to care about them without it. He was featured on two tracks from early leaks of Late Registration (one of which included a goofy-ass line about "Get off my brand new dick" on its hook, and that doesn't even make sense), and both tracks got cut from the final version. Nick went to see him live and fell asleep. It's not like I've spent a lot of time thinking about Rhymefest, but he's always seemed like just another conscious-rap journeyman, a guy who would always live in the shadow of more famous, more talented collaborators. But then he went and made a pretty great album, and now all my preconceptions are shot to hell.

Blue Collar isn't scheduled to drop until mid-July, so who even knows how much of the leaked version will actually hit Best Buy racks, but right now, on third listen, it's pretty much a lock for my year-end top twenty. Musically, it's all glistening guitar-ripples and breezy 70s-soul strings and greasy organs and horn stabs, gorgeous and sunny Chicago stuff. There's one song with a Strokes sample, and that has Ronson's fingerprints all over it, but the damn thing somehow works. Rhymefest's voice is a thick, husky lisp, not immediately arresting but strong and nimble enough to sink in (Nick says Common imitating Redman, I say GZA), and he attacks the mic with such a joyous gusto that he makes his stuff register through sheer force of will. He's an ex-battle rapper, and so his lyrics lean heavily on punchlines, but those punchlines are light and self-deprecating and generally actually funny: "I wanna shun critics / Like bitch, give me my three mics and just be done with it." He unloads self-righteousness on new-jack gangstas: "Blue collar rap, why I call it that? / Shit, I know more real niggas at U-Haul than haul crack." (U-Haul is a terrible company; motherfuckers owe me two hundred bucks.) But then two songs later, he's talking hard next to Bump J: "You could never hold this block like I do / You grew up in a house full of women and let your mom pussify you." There's knife-edged political awareness all over Blue Collar ("Dimebag-ass niggas ain't large / When the Patriot Act come hit they ass with a terrorist charge / And we is what they made it for / You think it's all about Arabs? It's a war on the poor"), but it's all mixed up with clumsy sex-talk and good-natured boasting and ODB singing a god-awful rendition of "Build Me Up Buttercup" and jokes for days. Kanye's shadow hangs over everything, but that's not a bad thing. The "brand new dick" song shows up (it already has its own garbage-ass Dave Meyers video), but even there Rhymefest isn't above harmless little digs: "Me and Ye go back like crew cuts / He hook me up as long as I don't ask for too much / But even he know Fest laying it down / Because it's just a old beat he had laying around." It's just a relentlessly likable album, perfect for this time of year when the heat hasn't gotten oppressive yet and we're all still not over the novelty of leaving the house without a jacket. And all that makes it a great companion piece to the other post-Kanye Chicago rap album that just leaked, Lupe Fiasco's Food & Liquor.

Lupe and Rhymefest are really on to something. They both come from a city whose biggest rap export throughout the 90s was an insufferable granola-munching pseudo-boho. They've both fully absorbed the aesthetics of the late-90s Rawkus backpack boom, and they both get a little sanctimonious from time to time, but it's only a piece of the puzzle for both of them. There's not a lot of "real hip-hop" talk from these two; both of them claim that they don't even really listen to rap, even if both of the cram in enough internal rhymes and quick allusions to let you know it isn't true. Compared to overbearingly conscious types like Talib Kweli or Little Brother, they both sound like they're having a blast all the time, like they're both perfectly aware of everything that's wrong in the world but they aren't going to let that detract from the joy of piling words on top of each other. Both Food & Liquor and Blue Collar remind me of one of my favorite records of all time, Brand Nubian's One for All; they're charged with rage and frustration and injustice and bad faith, but the "eating up suckas as if I was Pac-Man" stuff remains fully intact. I get a lot of heat in the comments section for preferring T.I. and Jeezy to Common and Kweli, but I'd like to offer Rhymefest and Lupe as examples of ways to escape the us-vs.-them grandstanding that infects so much Okayplayer fare. These two guys don't need to wear their brains and their hearts on their sleeves to let you know that they're there.



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