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Music Review: Rhymefest – El Che

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Chicago emcee Rhymefest (born Che Smith) is no rookie to the rap game. He won over fans with his debut LP Blue Collar and won a Grammy for writing the Kayne West hit “Jesus Walks”. But since 2007, fans have been waiting awhile for this next album El Che. And so has Smith. Because it hasn’t been any easy road to the album’s eventual release in because it was suppose to drop late last year, but during production tracks leaked on the Internet which caused Smith to frustratingly scrap everything and start over.

And after the leaks, in an interview, Smith said he had suicidal thoughts and nearly killed himself as he struggled to deal with personal issues and the repeated drama of a delayed second album.

Needless to say, I was pulling for Smith as I’ve been eagerly awaiting to see how he would bounce back. And because of that I’ve had high hopes for El Che. But the question is, did he deliver the goods?

On one hand, El Che celebrates everything I love about hip hop because it sounds like a renaissance rap album back from the future. But on the other hand, it confuses me and makes me wonder why the story that Rhymefest is trying to tell doesn’t grab me like I want it to.

As the master creator of the best Micheal Jackson tribute mixtape ever (released a year before MJ died), Smith knows how to thread a story through an album. He knows how to put his mixtape skills to use and set the tone for what an album is all about.

And during the first moments of the opening track “The Agent,” the revolutionary and hero theme was obvious. Like during the MJ mixtap and Blue Collar intro, I was drawn in by the psychological and dramatic mystery Smith created in my mind.

But from that point, the story of El Che loses its way. Sure, after a couple trips through the album the connection between skits and songs becomes a bit more clear. But it’s not as seamless, cinematic or believable as it could be. And knowing the struggles he’s had since Blue Collar, the overall feeling of Smith wanting to exorcise the past demons and finally be free definitely shines through on several tracks. And just when thing might get a bit to serious, he tosses in a line or a track that’s lighthearted, playful and romantically flippant. Sometimes the balance works but others, I wish he would have either chose the humour or the drama, but not both.

The album’s production is strong. It’s lush, layered and nuanced in all the right places. It melds classic hip hop beats, strings, scratches and gritty rock guitar samples making the sonic journey both unpredictable and familiar to fans who want new and old school in one solid package.

Track to track, it serves up banging and head-bobbing personal anthems and mixes in a series of juicy, slow jammin’ and soul-drenched love ballads where Rhymefest and company play the suitor and wooer. Without a doubt, Smith rhymes with the deftest of wordplay throughout, which is expected from a rapper who once beat Eminem at a rap battle. That said, beats and rhymes are fresh and energetic, and prime for the club dance floor, or soaking up solo between your headphones.

One of the best tracks is the white-hot and grooving “Prosperity” that takes aim at opportunistic and selfish religious leaders who try to cash in on salvation and leave their congregation with empty pockets and bankrupt souls. Rarely does Smith pull punches, and on “Talk My Shit” and “One Arm Push Up,” he flexes his newly found rebirth of career clarity and self-confidence with zero hesitation. On “City Is Fallen” with help of rapper Slique, Smith raps about the promise of future filled with even though his current situation and surrounding might be dark and bleak. It wouldn’t be a Rhymefest with out a track specific about his hometown, and “Chicago” he waxes poetic about his love/hate relationship with the Windy City. During “Chocolate” he mixes insightful metaphors about “the ladies” and “career paths,” while he philosophizes about the sweet and tough choices we must make in life.

All expectations and the long wait considered, for the most part, El Che only lags when the storytelling gets confusing, or when Smith’s empowering and community-based social message gets contradicted by his tendency to fall victim to rap cliche. There aren’t a lot of these awkward lyrical moments, but when they do happen, they suck all the power out of the song and really make you go “huh” and ask yourself why did he need to go there?

If you didn’t know already, Rhymefest is prolifically thoughtful and always engaging on his Twitter page and blog. You can follow along for as he releases more videos and mixtapes downloads at ElCheTheMovement.com.

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About Chris Catania