Rhymefest - El Che

Posted June 9, 2010
Tags: Rhymefest,

What happens to a rap career deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun? Or fester like...

El Che Album Review

What happens to a rap career deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun? Or fester like a sore—like Ja Rule? Does it crust and sugar over—like a syrupy sweet? Maybe it just sags and desperately starts making auto-tune tracks with Ron Browz? Or maybe, just maybe, it takes a couple years off, battles suicidal thoughts, does a Michael Jackson mixalbum, suffers through label politics, blogs for DJBooth and then comes out firing on a new album. Maybe it explodes.

In 2005 an up-and-coming Rhymefest won a Grammy for writing Kanye’s Jesus Walks, then quickly parlayed that Grammy into a debut album, Blue Collar, that while critically acclaimed only sold decently. What followed were four years of questions and false starts for Fest (born Che Smith), but through it all he maintained his love for hip-hop and has emerged a stronger man and emcee with the release of his sophomore album El Che (which, for all of you who don’t hablo espanol, is Spanish for, The Che.) Somewhat surprisingly, Che isn’t nearly as conceptual as it may sound; themes of political and social revolution come and go throughout the album. In fact, it isn’t a theme that ties El Che together, it’s Fest’s uncompromising flow.

Fest doesn’t waste any time announcing his intentions on El Che, immediately diving into the snare heavy, rock-infused Talk My S**t, a cut that finds him delivering vicious rhymes about everything from First 48 (it’s true, everyone does snitch on that show) to Charles Hamilton, whose work let’s just say Fest does not admire. For Fest, hip-hop is a masculine, muscular art form, and he does plenty of flexing on the album, bringing in Saigon and Mos Def to join him on the superbly produced Give It To Me for some high-caliber verses – for his part Fest challenges Wacka Flocka to visit the Chi to see what a truly rough neighborhood is like – and stalking the streets swinging his mic like a hammer on the hardcore hometown anthem Chicago: “Rhymefest, I’m armed with grammar, you’ll get arrested f**k reading Miranda.” Like the man with whom he shares a first name, Rhymefest isn’t afraid to challenge anyone and everyone, making El Che sound at times less like an album than an invitation to fight.

Before you grab your bandana and buy a ticket to the Chiapas, it’s crucial to realize that on the revolutionary scale El Che falls almost exactly in between those Che shirts they sell at the mall and overthrowing Batista during the Cuban revolution; meaning Fest doesn’t seem to so much want a revolution as he does a government that leaves him free to make dope hip-hop, make money and f**k. While the album’s lead single How High is certainly inspiring, Fest hopes the track prompts the listener to join him in the good life, not join the underground, and the supremely smooth Say Wassup, easily the album’s most radio ready joint, is a call for women to raise their standards and get with a better man, a man it just so happens to be Rhymefest. On almost any other album these tracks would be simply enjoyable, but naming your album in part after a Marxist revolutionary, and appearing on the cover with Ralph Ellison and Frederick Douglas, you’re declaring a higher standard; a standard Fest himself occasionally falls short of. There’s certainly nothing wrong with sex, but Fest’s repeated references to rough sex, going so far as to declare that his bi**hes like to feel like they’re being raped on Truth on You, are unsettling to say the least, as is his steady undercurrent of homophobia. If this is a people’s revolution, there are large portions of the people who aren’t invited.

Although Rhymefest seems determined to be taken with the utmost seriousness, ultimately taking El Che as a literal, political work is misguided and limiting. Instead of trying to unravel the contradictions between Che Guevera’s Marxism and El Che’s capitalism, we’d be much better served unraveling Fest’s incredible rhyme style on One Hand Push Up. If were to focus entirely on Fest’s occasionally aggressive misgony, we’d completely miss the powerfully personal City is Falling. Instead, it’s best to view El Che as a complicated, densely layered and always honest work, much like the man who created it, Che Smith.

DJBooth Rating - 3.5 Spins

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Posted June 9, 2010
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