Rhymefest

This Chicago MC gives a good name to conscious rap, too often the genre where creativity and fun go to die. Like his pal and benefactor Kanye West (with whom he won a Grammy last year for co-writing "Jesus Walks"), Rhymefest is obsessed with the intersection between virtue and temptation. Blue Collar, his big-budget debut, is filled with evidence of the rapper's struggle to reconcile his material desires with his conviction that true happiness lies in transcending those cravings; as on West's records, the juiciest moments occur when Rhymefest can't quite reason the contradiction away.

Of course, what makes Blue Collar's complexities worth savoring--and what distinguishes it from many of its bargain-bin conscious-rap counterparts--is the top-shelf collection of beats by high-priced producers such as Just Blaze, Cool & Dre and West himself; the disc's appealingly glossy sound acknowledges that, on the radio, introspective philosophizing still (rightly) answers to the almighty groove. Rhymefest has the most fun in the handful of tracks helmed by well-connected celebrity DJ Mark Ronson. In "Devil's Pie" he invites George Bush, Donald Rumsfeld and Condoleezza Rice to sample their own bullshit over a funky chop-up of the Strokes' "Someday." It might be the most buoyant protest song of the summer.

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Mikael Wood

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