Known to his mom as Che Smith and raised in the South Side neighborhood of Jeffrey Manor, Chicago rapper Rhymefest first grabbed the national spotlight in 2004 as co-author of Kanye West's mega-hit "Jesus Walks," a feat for which he claimed a third of the 2005 Grammy for Best Rap Song, along with West and hip-hop violinist Miri Ben-Ari. Marked as a hot up-and-comer, though he was already nearing age 30, Rhymefest signed to Clive Davis's J Records, a label more in tune with the "American Idol" crowd than cutting-edge hip-hop, and the company hardly did justice to his fine 2006 debut, "Blue Collar," my choice for one of that year's best albums.
Sluggish sales were one reason Rhymefest was dropped by J; another was his invigorating (to me) or alienating (to the corporate music industry) penchant for shooting his mouth off about politics, the sorry state of the music business, and whatever else is on his mind. Then there was the controversy over his incredible 2008 mixtape, "Man in the Mirror (The Michael Jackson Tribute Album)," a poignant "conversation" between the down-to-earth rapper and the Bizarro World superstar that my "Sound Opinions" colleague Greg Kot rightly called Jackson's best album in more than a decade. Unfortunately, its liberal use of samples also was totally unauthorized, so this brilliant effort was little heard and ultimately did neither artist much good.
Back in the do-it-yourself ranks and once again his own boss, Rhymefest seems reinvigorated on his long-awaited second album; his joy at being free to follow his own muse again is palpable in these grooves. As the title and cover art might indicate, the disc is rife with references to the legendary revolutionary for whom he artist was named -- though it's a picture of Frederick Douglass that he's contemplating in that photo. Much like Ernesto Guevara, Rhymefest can be a bit fuzzy-headed in his political thinking; "Freedom fighters most governments call terror," he raps on the opening track "Intro: The Agent," but even the most hardcore Leftie will tell you it just ain't that simple. Rhymefest hardly is a modern-day Douglass, or even a Chuck D; more like that loquacious workingman sage at the end of the bar, forever spouting off and cracking wise, and off the mark as often as he's on.
When Rhymefest tackles the hypocrisies of greedy mega-churches in "Prosperity" or the plantation politics of the dying major-label system in "One Arm Push Up," he's fearless and ferocious, scoring solid bull's eyes on those subjects. Unfortunately, he's much more uneven and contradictory on matters of the heart (he's advocating respect for women in "Say Whassup" but sounding like a piggish playa on "Agony,"), and "Chicago," he vacillates between paying homage to the hometown rap scene headed by socially conscious artists such as Common and West, and dissing all those (unnamed) "pop rappers."
Thankfully, the artist's winning sense of humor and unerring ability to throw a sharp one-liner into even the most misguided diatribe usually saves the day in the end, and you can't help but be seduced by the relatively lo-fi but extremely tuneful musical beds, crafted at Chicago's Soundscape Studios with producer Michael Kolar, and powered by friendly old-school/dusty R&B grooves. (No Daft Punk electronica for this everyman.) Rhymefest is hardly the most fluid of rappers -- at times, he seems to be tripping over his own thick tongue -- but he gets the job done, and he's one of the few emcees on the current scene who's 100-percent his own man; he just doesn't sound like anybody else.
In the end, while "El Che" isn't as strong as "Blue Collar," it's as solid a hip-hop disc as I've heard this year, and a must-hear entry in what will hopefully become a long discography from a needed and welcome voice.
Rhymefest will perform as a special guest along with the Jordan Years at Schadenfreude's "The City That Works Live" at Martyr's, 3855 N. Lincoln, starting at 9 p.m. on Thursday, June 17. The cover is $10, and more info can be found here. (Editors note: Full disclosure - I am a member of this Schadenfreude Jim speaks of)
And, as if anyone with the slightest concern for the environment and a healthy fear of corporate unaccountability had any doubt of the true heart of darkness evident in BP's lackluster approach to cleaning up its mess in the Gulf, the oil company has confirmed the blackness of its soul by hiring as its "disaster public relations consultant" one Hilary Rosen--formerly the absurdly well-connected, long-time mouthpiece of the Recording Industry Association of America, the major-label lobbying group, and frontwoman for its unconscionable assault on its own customers via the demonization of "illegal downloaders." Links to some illuminating stories from The Daily Swarm.
Also: Our neighbors to the south in Gary, Indiana, may want to slow down a bit on those absurdly ambitious plans to‚ build a museum in tribute to the self-proclaimed King of Pop near his boyhood home. According to the Guardian.co.uk, while Joe Jackson, the father who brutalized and was hated by his son Michael, has been working with Mayor Rudy Clay on the project--which the two, um, misguided souls believe will bring 500,000 to 750,000 visitors to Gary annually, generating between‚ $100 to $150 million dollars--the idea is not, in fact, authorized by M.J.'s estate, and Papa Joe does not talk for the mega-star's survivors. Poor Joe. Maybe he can get a job working for BP, too.