Like space junk mistaken for a star, Chicago MC Rhymefest has carved out his own little gravitational pull in the wake of the ascent of his hometown pal, Kanye West. For a while, the Other Other Chi-town hero appeared to be capable of burning brightly on his own, specifically the self-effacing hangdog pastiche of Rhymefest’s debut album, 2006’s Blue Collar. On the heels of sharing a Grammy award with ’Ye for co-writing “Jesus Walks,” the two teamed up for Rhymefest’s own banger, “Brand New,” and the relatable mid-tempo ode to ambition, “More.” The major label release boasted guest spots from West, Q-Tip, Mario, Citizen Cope and even O.D.B., with immaculate, intelligent production from Just Blaze, No I.D., Mark Ronson and Cool & Dre. Between the album’s sparkling construction and Rhymefest’s down-to-earth, humble flow, the MC seemed poised to follow his buddy’s footsteps to the top.
Four years later and Rhymefest, aka Che Smith, is a completely changed man. Gone are the witty barbs and grinning neighborhood tales. In their place are bitterness, empty braggadocio and a depressing sense of thriftiness. Everything about El Che rings false, from the cover shot of a pensive Rhymefest reading Invisible Man to the photos in the liner notes where he unironically poses with a machine gun and a bandanna. The contents of the CD are no better, where bargain-bin beats and sloppy guest spots substitute for cohesiveness.
Most disturbing is Rhymefest’s worldview, which has curdled into off-putting homophobia and misogyny, both traits that he once professed to despise about hip-hop in interviews. He puzzlingly attacks the much younger (and much more skilled) rapper Charles Hamilton on “Talk My Shit” for Hamilton’s soft-spoken “nerd rap.” “Boy, put some bass in your voice/ You sound intimate/ Hip-hop’s supposed to have edge/ You so innocent,” the rapper spits, forgetting that everything he’s describing is the same thing Kanye West was also attacked for when he first came into the game (and still to this day). Even the rare bright spots provided by sparsely used producer Terry Hunter are ruined by Rhymefest’s easily defeatable, artless rants. “My nigga, if I got AIDS, your baby mama got AIDS ’cause I’m fuckin’ her, my nigga,” he unleashes at the end of the otherwise stellar “Truth On You.” “Motherfucker told me I raped a girl,” he unfortunately continues. “If I raped a girl, nigga, she meant ‘yes’ when she said ‘no.’ That’s my bitches, they like a little resistance.”
Lord knows Kanye’s had his moments of ill advised (if usually accurate) verbal diarrhea, but at least he still has something interesting to say. Rather than the triumphant return of an overlooked gem, Rhymefest proves himself on El Che as just another piece of debris mucking up the orbit of a real star.