Rhymefest RhymefestEl Che
Pictured on the cover is a copy of the autobiography of Frederick Douglas, Ralph Ellison’s novel “Invisible Man”, a guerrilla cap, a rifle and a bottle of Hennessey Black, all garnished with a revolutionary-looking logo and a title that looks pretty indicative of the contents and intentions of the album. But halt. Nothing is what it seems. Don’t be scared: we aren’t looking at the latest attempt at communist propaganda with a hip hop alibi. Rhymefest has not become a substitute for Dead Prez. In the same way that in his notable debut, “Blue Collar” –backed and supported by Kanye West , who was indebted to him after he co-wrote “Jesus Walks”, and according to gossip, some other songs that he wasn’t a given credit on– the rapper from Chicago has played with the look, iconography, metaphors, and double entendres of the title. From a concept focused on the average American working class, here he uses revolutionary paraphernalia as he pleases to construct his musical and lyrical discourse, and to take advantage as much as possible of his point of departure.
The figure of Che has a double symbolic meaning. On one hand, Rhymefest’s real name is Che Smith, as simple as that; on the other hand, there is the not-very-original, but logical and effective idea of presenting himself as a rebel, an ideological and artistic marksman, within the framework of contemporary hip hop. Part of this album’s charm lies in the way that the artist integrates social and political concerns, always in a tone that is more Common than Chuck D, more positive than combative. The sermon isn’t everything, and this helps to decongest his texts, especially to quickly clear up the suspicion that we’re faced with another troublemaking orator. Political rap then, but not demagogic. Rhymefest shows once again that he has plenty of ingenuity, talent, and hip hop sensibility, as has had as an impressive expressive and creative evolution. From his first efforts as a battle MC, king of freestyle, to this adult profile, he’s very close to the concept of the educated rapper, with enough balance to avoid the chitchat, and it’s a fascinating journey.
His bravery when it comes to shoring up the musical contents of this second album also deserves to be emphasised. He didn’t have it easy, truth be told. If in “Blue Collar” the rapper had the help of Kanye West, Just Blaze and No I.D. in the fishbowl, which in itself guarantees you media attention and makes it relatively easy to arouse interest and assure yourself of favourable reviews, for this return he has opted to distance himself from that past –four years have passed already since his coming-out– and to try out other producers to provide his lyrics with new voices and new perspectives. With the results he holds in his hand, this bet against the odds has turned out well and very solid. Scram Jones isn’t a recent arrival at all, and although he has been earning himself the following of the headz through hard work for a few years now, his status still hasn’t left the underground sphere. You’ve got to take a chance. And his role, with three songs, shines with its own light; those who love New York classicism eat it up: “Give It to Me” is one of the most soulful hits of the season, without looking any further.
But undoubtedly the discovery of this album is the producer S1 (also known as Symbolyc One), ex-member of the Strange Fruit Project, having put out four spectacular beats that Kanye didn’t pass over when he listened to the material. From “El Che” to stardom: S1 is the producer of “Power”, the overwhelming single from West’s coming album that was leaked a few days ago. His legacy here, going back to what we were talking about, is exciting: “How High” , with a looped guitar solo, soul back-ups, a solid beat, and an epic use of the keyboards, is the most dumbfounding moment of the lot, and one of the songs of 2010. The rest of the productions shouldn’t be missed either, though: “Chocolates” captures the essence of A Tribe Called Quest, “One Hand Push Up” invites you to think of him as the natural take-over from No I.D., and “Say Wassup”, curiously with the collaboration of Phonte from Little Brother, describes how the sound of 9th Wonder, so stagnant today, should have evolved. The two of them take care of half of the album and throw a lot of light on the more immediate future of the quarry of producers.
With a wise, proper, measured use of real instrumentation, with a worthy work of production that completes the rest of the company of beatmakers, and especially with a very clear, concise vision of the ideal sound that the album required, an overwhelming ball of funk updated with blues-rock details and touches of soul, all markedly black and harking back in aesthetics and sound to the convulsive period of the Black Panthers, “El Che” claims its place as one of the most solid, hard-hitting, and brave exercises that we have heard so far this season, and as one of the most brilliant political hip hop albums heard lately. Have no fear: this is the album that we have been expecting for the last few years from people like Dead Prez, Talib Kweli, Paris, Mos Def or, of course, Public Enemy.