Blue Collar

(J; 2006)

By Mark Abraham & Aaron Newell | 3 August 2006

Mark: Peel open Blue Collar’s cover and find Rhymefest split-screening his personality: the overworked, underpaid blue-collar worker (a collar which flips up when he gets angry) and the thin-tie sporting white-collar manager. It’s a clever image to push on an album full of conflict, on which Mr. Blue Collar sincerely chronicles his life lived on the infamous south side of Chicago, even despite his writing credits on pocket-lining numbers like “Jesus Walks,” which has been eating itself ever since Kanye’s giant white wings made their first appearance attached to the back of his white Armani suit. ‘Fest, however, brings that shit back down to the people; Blue Collar begins immediately with Q-Tip riffing over a conflation of the vocal acrobatics of Kanye’s hit with a thick church organ. When the album shifts into the first proper track, “Dynomite,” and we get alternating breaks shuttling under an ascending horn sample and a chorus with thick crashes, ‘Fest’s guttural eloquence is almost secondary to the crafting of the song. I mean, dude can spit, don’t get me wrong: “blue collar rap / why I call it that / shit, I know more real niggas at U-Haul than haul crack.” But he does it over one of the most eclectic selection of beats (chaotic to cutesy) that I’ve heard in a while. Aaron?

Aaron: Hi Mark. Thanks for inviting me to contribute to this. I might have gone with a different intro, as Rhymefest has arguably had even more humble moments than his U-Haul line, depending on who you talk to. Some argue that Rhymefest has had an uphill climb ever since Dose One sort-of beat him at Scribble Jam in 1997, and that he went into hiding after that, stunting his big-market development. Other folks will say that Dose was talking over ‘Fest’s raps, and therefore should have been disqualified. Conspiracy theorists say that Rhymefest beat Dose, and then “bowed out” of the final, rather than battle his homey Juice (“A Unified Chicago”). But that theory doesn’t make sense because the final was a three-way battle with Eminem, Juice, and Dose, and no Fest, so there was never a guarantee that Rhymefest would have been up against Juice in the first place, it just sort of proceeded with all the semi-finalists except Rhymefest, despite some sources crediting Rhymefest with having beaten Eminem in the semis, despite Eminem essentially rehashing lines from his first EP throughout the battle (or, ingeniously writing his first EP during the battle). Thing is, even if Rhymefest didn’t want to step on Juice’s toes at Scribble, he had previously battled Juice a number of times, most notably at the Source battle earlier that year, where Juice beat him. A lot of people blame Scribble Jam for dealying Rhymefest’s big-time debut this long: he didn’t return until 2003, when he won.

Mark: Thank you for the irrelevant rant, Aaron. I will attempt a record review now. Blue Collar works because ‘Fest can convincingly lob loaded statements like “I ain’t on no swim team / but you see pools of blood” that twist-tie gang life, dissent, and racial inequality into aerobic vocal stabs that puncture that awesome funk synth that anchors the beat for “Bullet,” which deals with the Army’s recruitment of the poor, STD’s, and the reasons a young gang member might shoot somebody. The whole of Blue Collar cuts an informed and incisive swath through the macro and micro politics of racialized life in Chicago and America. “Mr. Blue Collar” argues that blacks have no real control in the music industry or sports, or that no matter how successful, blacks remain “perceived” as second-class professionals. “More,” addressed to all his “blue collar niggas in the Midwest,” flips simple but powerful images like “nice car / no gas,” dissects the trend (for blacks specifically, but for everybody) that has people living beyond their means to possess the same things glorified in our fascination with stars, and even delves into the conflicted relationship between virility and sexually transmitted diseases: “I started using rubbers again / it ain’t that bad.” His sacrifices are very redeeming.

Aaron: He is also funny. Like on “Brand New,” which is the best song on the record, where he says he has a brand new dick. Where did he get that!!?!? Thailand? It’s illegal!

Mark: Probably the only song on Blue Collar that isn’t worth anyone’s time, “Brand New” is a recycled scrap heap novelty chant. West’s beat is all bicycle-wheeled instrumentation, but the gasping “brand new” that cuts through the lyrics constricts the flows of both rappers (well—‘Fest’s flow and Kanye’s whatever) is a trick that doesn’t quite work, at least as not as well as the “fever” sample taken directly from the song from which the beat for “Fever” is constructed. “Hot like hot sauce”—those claps that speed up over alternating quarters and eighths really add to the not-quite-nauseating oversell of the chorus. “Get Down” is pretty awesome, too, with the panned harmony vocals and his hilarious delivery of the line, “this is history / what rapper you know before his record dropped is a Grammy winner G? / Me!” Placed right after “All I Do,” we get ‘Fest’s conflicted relationship with his career: the sincere kid who worked his craft for years in obscurity, and the cocky kid who always believed he deserved success. “All I Do” is far more explosive, declaring “you can take the boy out of slum / can’t take the slum out of son” over arching strings, vocals, and skittish drums. And we already know I lurve “Devil’s Pie.”

Aaron: Where Rhymefest is the butter in a trust-fund sandwich.

Mark: I sort of like “Chicago-Rillas,” with its pairing of twinkly percussion, a simple vocal sample, organ, and thick drums, but the lyrics are kind of funny. The charisma almost makes the gangsta sentiments work (“I’m like bullets flying through the hood / you can’t ignore me”) but along with “Stick” and “All Girls Cheat” it kind of stands out as an obligatory hip hop trope satisfier. “Stick” especially grates—the old school beat isn’t really better than an actual old school beat, and those lyrics…I said to Chet when we were watching Spank Rock that he was much easier to like when I couldn’t hear what he was saying. This is sort of the same thing, except I can hear, and the automobile/sex metaphors just don’t do much for me, even if I set aside for the moment the overt sexism. I mean, I don’t know if ‘Fest thought “All Girls Cheat” or “Sister” would balance out the equation, but the former, despite its slushy R&B accompaniment that actually kind of works for once, isn’t exactly a bastion of women’s empowerment, however ‘Fest tries to level the playing field, and the latter is a Freudian clusterfuck of anti-drug sentiment that seems to suggest we only need be concerned about drug use among women. I mean, four filler tracks among sixteen (depending on how you feel about “Build Me Up” I guess) ain’t bad, so I’m not complaining too loudly, but still. Why can’t we get an executive producer who’ll trim that cheese?

Aaron: HEY! There’s a Lil Wayne dis on “Chicago-Rillas,” where one of the guys who isn’t Rhymefest says “We won’t kiss another man in the mouth / we gangsta.” This means he is also dissing Tony Soprano, which means he is dissing himself. Plus he’s on a song called “Chicago-Rillas,” which has comforting gorilla sounds.

Mark: Have you listened to this album?

Aaron: …

Mark: “Tell a Story” has a great soul feel, and should close the album. It’s Rhymefest’s most insightful moment: he’s not talking about his shirt, he’s just pointing out that “everybody and their mama has bad credit” and we all feel like “whales in a fishbowl,” and barely resists his urges to hold himself out as an example for his younger audience. In a way it’s a shame that this track doesn’t end the record on a “Fest, the nice guy” note, since “Build Me Up” is a brain-damaged nursery school jamboree. (“DJ”) Mark Ronson splices ODB singing the Foundations’ classic over a beat constructed from samples of the actual song, and ‘Fest looks to Big Baby Jesus for romance advice. And that inherent, fatal flaw isn’t even the biggest problem: while Ronson’s other beats certainly step towards the cliffs of cheese, “Build Me Up” bisons off them, and I think your acceptance of the track will rely entirely on how you feel about ‘Fest rapping over something that would fit comfortably on Spice World.

Aaron: I like that song, ODB is funny. He’s dead! But still rapping. This is innovative.

Mark: We could get into the “authenticity” of the concept of “blue-collar,” but I’m not sure that wouldn’t be setting up a bunch of straw men. ‘Fest isn’t trying to deny his success; he’s arguing two things: one, despite his success, he’s still black, and therefore still finds himself subject to the discrimination that entails, and two, that “authenticity” itself is misleading if we (any race) base our entire concept of what “black” means on ideas gleaned from hip hop songs. Is this a perfect working class revolutionary hip hop statement? No. But since the intersections of race and class are wildly complicated and touch to navigate, the fact that this is a very good one (and certainly the best since Quality, which was never going to be repeated unless by someone like Rhymefest) is probably enough. Aaron—you want the last word?

Aaron: Yes. I found a picture of Carl Thomas where he looks like a penguin.