fter more than a year of delay, Blue Collar has finally hit. Before its release, Rhymefest was simply that guy with a "Jesus Walks" co-writing credit, the other rapper from Chicago whose stuff you should really hear but never get around to. Blue Collar is the chance for that guy to show everyone who he is, and on it Rhymefest makes it clear that, well, he's a little bit of everything.
First, Fest has some messages to deliver. He worries about the working class, the impoverished, soldiers, and the careless direction his country's headed. He knows that trouble starts with context and with character, and that both sources of temptation need to be addressed. In case you don't know that this message is coming, the album opens with 'Fest introduced as a preacher of the highest order, about to take the stage somewhere between James Brown and Benny Hinn.
Then comes "Dynomite (Going Postal)," where he compares himself to Martin Luther King, Jr., attacks his peers, and praises himself (in case you're wondering, he's "got the world in his hand" and "a gun and a plan"). King, it turns out, would likely say stuff like, "You're a soft-ass nigger...you're a coward, you're a punk, you're a chump." Yeah. So he might not be King, but 'Fest comes hard, rhyming aggressively over a Just Blaze beat and attacking anyone who deserves it, including hip-hop fans who don't know they're followers (and think that posturing rappers are actually cool thugs).
Rhymefest does his fair share of posing here, too, setting himself up as a blue collar voice, large-living MC, anti-consumerist, killer, and archetypal male. But while Fest is busy covering all the bases, he forgets that his ideas don't need breadth—he simply needs to shake off the regular Joe and turn loose the street preacher. And Kanye apparently, as his tracks "Brand New" and "More" are the album's low points. The duo’s mapping of capitalist consumption over the perils of poverty and the joys of spending, doesn't center itself enough to make a coherent point. Rhymefest sounds endlessly confident, sure. But also afraid of turning a rhyme into a screed. He should risk being shrill in order to hammer something home.
He has to take that chance because he's a very good rapper. 'Fest knows how to work with his production (as in the perfectly intertwined "Fever"), but he can also command a track solely with his voice. Talent doesn't require the use of social consciousness, but it doesn't make sense to throw it away on tracks on the titular topic of "All Girls Cheat" or lines about his "dick." Rather than complex, ‘Fest comes across as a chameleon—a jack of all trades, master of none.
But just when you start to doubt, Rhymefest follows with "Devil's Pie," a smart song with smile, heart, and frustration that outlines his situation, "I'm ahead of my time, but I'm behind on my rent." 'Fest goes after culture, the current US and UK administrations, and himself. Things are bad, but he won't deny the personal responsibility in each situation: "What are we going to do when it all comes back on us? Looking further inward, he announces a return to religion with a "Jesus Walks" allusion ("Hear ye, hear ye, hear me clearly"). He then asks "The King" to "Tell Satan I don't owe him a thing" shortly before acknowledging that "you got the demons waiting for me." In this one tight track, Rhymefest shoots down corrupt leaderships, examines economic strictures, and sets out a theology of the personal.
Rhymefest could have put out the year's best album. He was better than all the rappers he battled against coming up, and he's better than nearly all the rapper's he's battling now for shelf space. For that reason, it's mildly disappointing that he's only released something that's really good. Something different than merely promise unfulfilled, Blue Collar is a puzzling work of high talent. An artist this gifted and this confident shouldn't be mincing his way to a top release and hedging his bets. He should be hammering away, making every word important (even when "important" equals "funny").