Anyone who knows me knows that my 2007, musically, was dominated by The Hood Internet, just like Rhymefest’s Blue Collar heated up my 2006. And one thing I heard someone say about the Hood that I think is really indicative of where hip hop is right now is “More people would listen to hip hop if it sounded more like this.” Which is perhaps an indicator that rap is in a lot of ways really insular as a genre. Why do people say they listen to “everything but rap and country?” This isn’t some snotty attempt to push some pro-indie rock agenda. No, it’s a reflection on a genre that’s still in its adolescence. What’s been exciting on the rap scene in the last couple of years? Kanye sampling Daft Punk. Ohmega Watts working with Mr. Scruff. Rhymefest and Mark Ronson repurposing the Strokes. Hip Hop has to start looking outward instead of inward for ideas, work toward a musical revolution to complement the societal revolution. It might sound like mainstreaming the sound, “selling out,” but with hip hop, you can change the sound and keep the message – the same way the Hood recontextualizes some of these tracks. Maybe change the attitude, maybe change the intensity or the delivery, but never the message.
So I’ve been babbling on for however many damn words about a perceived creative crossroads in hip hop. What’s this have to do with Man in the Mirror, the most recent Rhymefest mixtape? Man in the Mirror is the Rhymefest & Mark Ronson tribute album to Michael Jackson. And who changed the game more than Michael Jackson? They’re calling it a mixtape, and it does seem to go by pretty quickly, especially given how many tracks are just extended skits, but the tracks are high quality from front to back – if this is how El Che ends up sounding, I’ll be a happy man.
The two are an interesting pair – Fest does some creative editing on a few audio tracks, creating “conversations” with MJ. You’ve got two interesting characters there – Michael, an embattled musical icon, one of the all-time greats but a few steps over the line of weird. And you’ve got Rhymefest, critically acclaimed, accomplished, responsible for Jesus Walks, one of the most ambitious and exciting figures in hip hop today, but he still hasn’t broken through commercially. Michael practically invented modern pop music, transforming the Motown sound that the Jackson 5 embodied into the biggest selling album of all time. I get the impression that Rhymefest wants to do the same thing for Rap.
On “Breakadawn,” one of the album’s highlights, Fest paints both he and Michael as trailblazers – a pretty big boast for a rapper whose first album peaked at #61 on the Billboard 200. Fest won a Grammy before his album dropped, Michael sold 50 mil. Fest spoke on hip hop affairs with David Cameron in British Parliament, MJ got knighted. Fest cheerfully concedes defeat as only he can.
What’s great about anything Rhymefest puts out is that he radiates personality and charisma. He’s a funny dude – the skits are hilarious, especially when he edits himself into accusing Michael of passing gas in the studio. He’s got a magnetism to him that is present in just about every track – the same earnest humor that made Blue Collar so refreshing.
Rhymefest is the perfect hip hop everyman, a down-to-earth guy who doesn’t let his ego overshadow every track. So it’s ironic that this album is as much about him as it is about Michael Jackson. It’s a portrait of where Rhymefest has been and where he’s going. There’s some reflection on where he’s been, all he’s done – for a rapper whose audience isn’t as big as it ought to be, he’s accomplished a lot. But there’s a lot to get done.
Rhymefest is perhaps the most ambitious rapper in the game. I’m not talking about the Jay-Z sort, a financial ambition, or the Kanye West sort, who’s always struggling to top himself, or even the Public Enemy sort, seeking to change the world. Rhymefest could aspire to any one of those things. But his goal seems to be somehow reinventing hip hop – he derides ringtone rap and worries about being taken seriously in the hood without talking about shooting people and selling dope. On Blue Collar, he declared to the world that he wanted to tell a different story, the real story of the urban experience, that more people are waiting at the bus stop to go to work than selling drugs on any given corner. He’s got one criminally overlooked classic album under his belt and now a mixtape where he meets the master and tells him, “I’m next.”
The whole album feels like an event, more than just a mixtape that Rhymefest dropped to hold over fans waiting for El Che. While it’s primarily an album about Fest, his update of a classic Ghostface track and his collaboration with Talib Kweli both bring solid verses that keep the album flowing. The disk never feels like a tribute to Michael Jackson as hosted by Rhymefest, but the guest contributions take the album on a different route if only briefly. I’m not complaining, though: who doesn’t love Ghostface?
It’d be stupid to try to cover all the highlights, but I did want to throw some attention real quick to his almost child-like triumph at the end of “No Sunshine,” where he boasts that he could give this record to the “biggest dope dealer in world, and he’d LOVE it!” There’s the goal: Fest wants to be everything to everyone, he wants to stay positive but stay hood at the same time, to be a crossover icon but not branded as a sellout, and he’s what really carries it through. I’m not sure anyone but him could do it this well (then again, what do I know about hood?).
I’m going to end this on the same point as I began – the beats. For my money, Mark Ronson is one of the best producers around today, and he shines on Man in the Mirror. The album could have easily been Rhymefest rapping over “Beat It,” but it ends up being so much more ambitious than that – there’s some solid use of some MJ interview tracks on Mike the Mentor, what starts as a skit but turns into a song about what it is to be black. Among the most inspired beats is “Foolin’ Around”, a classic Fest song that could be a sequel to “All Girls Cheat.” Another is the title track, “Man in the Mirror” – fairly unchanged from the original MJ track, but the contrast between Fest’s verses and the original MJ chorus is really effective as a closer to the album. It seems like Michael Jackson is mostly forgotten but for Thriller and for being Kind of Weird, but he does have a bit of a laid back jazzy quality to him in a lot of the tracks on this record. Maybe with Kanye sampling PYT on Graduation we’re due for a resurgence of MJ in hip hop, and Rhymefest proves that you can’t get a much better sample.
The only real problem is that the album was probably shorter than this review. I mean, who gives a shit, no complaints here. If it was much longer, he’d probably have to sell it. But the album reminds us that Fest can deliver. And it did its job – J Records can’t get its shit together soon enough.
Posted by Joe Kaiser at Dec 04, 2008 05:45 PM