When Kanye West and Rhymefest brought Jesus to the Grammys and the pop charts with "Jesus Walks," they made labels like "pop," "underground," "conscious," "mainstream," "backpacker," and "political" seem even more irrelevant than usual. In the post-Kanye West world, it's become thrillingly apparent that with enough talent, conviction, and drive, rappers can sell millions without selling their souls or compromising their vision. Nobody embodies this exhilarating paradigm more than Chicago's Rhymefest, whose buzz-magnet J Records debut reconciles working-class roots with Cristal dreams, and monster hooks with soaring ambition.
Blue Collar's title suggests gritty working-class pride, but its infectious production, goofy personality, huge melodies, laugh-out-loud punchlines, and smart cribbing from the great American songbook all scream "platinum or bust." Jacking from Peggy Lee, '60s pop, and D'Angelo, Rhymefest has made a terrific pop album with something to say. Forget a spoonful of sugar making the medicine go down: Blue Collar is more like a pound of taffy so delicious that it's easy to forget medicine is even involved. "Devil's Pie" ingeniously mashes up The Strokes and D'Angelo courtesy of Mark Ronson (the talented DJ-producer son of guitarist-producer Mick Ronson), while "More" is a perfect pop song that makes the solid but less-than-transcendent West-produced single "Brand New" seem a little threadbare by comparison.
Like West, Rhymefest understands that self-effacement and self-aggrandizement are two sides of the same coin, and he's adept at working with both. Also like West, Rhymefest doesn't exempt himself from his stinging critique of society's warped values and crass materialism: He's as hard on himself as he is on wack MCs. But perhaps the most important quality West and Rhymefest share is their furious conviction that it's possible to appeal to everyone without pandering to anyone.