Rhymefest brings humanity to hip-hop

Because of her current state of "wackness," her general lack of flavor and soul, hip-hop and I have barely been on speaking terms lately. The thug-isms and minstrel-like "pimpalicious" fantasies she celebrates more and more these days are straight-up boring. (And I'm not even going to get into how destructive those warped images can be.)

But a Chicago rapper with a slight lisp, a sharp mind and a razor wit may bring us back together again.


Enter Rhymefest. His major-label debut, Blue Collar, landed in stores last week. And it's one of the more acclaimed rap CDs to hit the streets in a minute. It feels human, which means it isn't perfect. But it doesn't go out of its way to be -- unlike the sometimes-belabored albums of the rapper's longtime Chi-Town buddy, Kanye West. With his much-talked-about new CD, Rhymefest wants to bring back something hip-hop desperately needs.

"Balance, man," he says. "That's what hip-hop's been missing. Blue Collar is the working man's record. Folks like KRS-One and Tupac used to show duality, the power and frailty. ... We need both things in this music, man, to show more of our humanity. We need that strength."


Rhymefest, who's calling before a gig in San Francisco, speaks with the same inviting, preacher-like passion that burns through his more serious cuts. I know brothas like him from around the way: funny, intense and, at times, brilliant.

"Man, I read somewhere that hip-hop brings in, like, $6 billion or something," says the artist, 28. "I'm trying to get my million, you know? There's room for me. I'm not battling no rapper; I'm fighting the machine behind it all."

And he knows about fighting. Here's the breakdown: Born Che Smith, the artist grows up on Chicago's hard-knock South Side. Mother battles (and, fortunately, later overcomes) a crack addiction. In the fifth grade, the boy discovers through a class presentation that he has a talent for rapping. Inspired by the reaction from his peers, and to escape the troubles at home, he starts writing rhymes in his bedroom when he's supposed to be sleeping.

Later, he drops out of high school but eventually earns his GED and enrolls in Columbia College in Chicago to study radio broadcasting. His girlfriend gets pregnant. He marries her and drops out of school to support the family with a string of low-paying jobs, including one as a janitor, while his new wife finishes her degree at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind. In '98, baby boy Solomon is born. Wife graduates and becomes a chemical engineer. The new daddy finally refocuses on his music. A few years later, though, the marriage ends in divorce with Rhymefest gaining custody of little Solomon.

In 2001, a then-unknown West produces Raw Dawg, a limited-distribution indie recording that still manages to generate some buzz about his skills. In 2003, the rapper signs with Allido, the J Records-distributed label owned by producer and DJ Mark Ronson. Also about this time, he co-writes "Jesus Walks," a hit featured on West's smash 2004 debut, The College Dropout. (Although Rhymefest is a Muslim, he says the song doesn't conflict with his beliefs: "It's all about God's messengers.") The track wins both Chicagoans a Grammy in 2005 and builds momentum for Rhymefest's debut.

"The common statement I hear when people hear my album is, 'Why didn't I know about this?'" the rapper says. "I don't know if it's due to [bad] radio; I don't know. ... I know I'm the underdog, so we're bucking the system to promote my work."

In the last two years or so, several Chi-Town rappers (namely West, Common, Twista and Lupe Fiasco) have garnered strong sales, airplay and critical kudos. So the time is ripe for another talented Midwestern storyteller.

"Their success is good for me," Rhymefest says. "It's good for the movement of this music. ... I'm glad for those brothers. I'm ready to shine some light on my project."


Bumping with earthy, sample-rich production courtesy of West, Ronson, Cool & Dre and No-ID, Blue Collar presents the rapper as a humbled, humorous, swaggering everyman. He comes into his own, though, about midway into the album -- after he gets the calculated shots at the charts out of the way: the tightly produced if unmemorable "Dynomite (Going Postal)" ; the first single, "Brand New," featuring West; and "Fever." Stellar cuts abound on the cohesive 16-track CD: "Devil's Pie" smartly samples the Strokes and extends the spirit of "Jesus Walks"; "Sister" is an ironic, melancholic twist on the boy-meets-girl-at-the-club tale; and "Stick" is a lascivious club banger slightly reminiscent of the Ying Yang Twins' "Wait (The Whisper Song)."

Blue Collar is a grown-folks' hip-hop album, nuanced and realistic about 'hood life.

"There's nothing good about poverty in the 'hood, man," Rhymefest says. "You listen to hip-hop now and you think everybody's in the 'hood hustling, hustling. Even the hustler [goes] home to his woman; he has a mother. For every hustler, there's somebody catching the bus in the morning to go to that 9 to 5. In hip-hop, we've become caricatures, man. I'm just putting that balance back out there, so that folks know there's something other than just rims and the bling."