Wednesday, Jan. 23, 2008

Rhymefest and Mark Ronson Do Michael Jackson

By Evan Rytlewski
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As much as he might grumble, it's not like Rhymefest has never caught a break. The Chicago rapper has, after all, been able to make a living off of his craft, won a Grammy, bested a young Eminem in a freestyle battle and struck up convenient friendships with hitmakers like Kanye West and Mark Ronson.

Where Rhymefest has had a difficult time, however, is in converting his good fortune into bona fide stardom. His long-belated debut album, 2006's Blue Collar, did little to establish him as his own name. Even in the considerable press surrounding the album, the rapper was overshadowed by his Kanye West connections.

This year Rhymefest returned with a brilliant can't-miss concept: Man In The Mirror, a free mixtape dedicated to Michael Jackson, but, curiously, instead of being greeted by a frenzy of media hype, it's received mostly silence. Of course, themed mixes aren't quite the novelty they were back in 2004, when Danger Mouse dropped the Grey Album, and even a free, downloadable mix isn't enough to capture headlines these days (Mick Boogie releases one every couple of months, and Atmosphere just posted an outstanding one late last month), but this one still deserves more attention that it's received.

Not that it would change much even if the blogosphere did light up with buzz over the release. As a mix, Man In The Mirror is a triumph, a cleverly conceived crowd pleaser, but as a star-making vehicle for Rhymefest, it's a total failure. As bright as the rapper shines, particularly on the mix's first half, he's consistently upstaged by his top-billed collaborators: producer Mark Ronson (who, fairly or not, will receive most of the credit for the music and the vision here) and the mythical Michael Jackson, whose disembodied voice owns these songs. Rhymefest is also outshined by the guest verses, some of which, like Michael Jackson's choruses, are sampled: Talib Kweli spits a characteristically dense verse, and Ghostface digs deep for a tender autobiographical rap that runs far longer than the requisite 16 bars. Even the past-their-prime guests, Camp Lo and Dres from Black Sheep, give Rhymefest a run for his money, making it hard to muster too much sympathy for him every time he gripes about deserving greater fame. If Dres can come to terms with his own stunted career, then surely Rhymefest has nothing to complain about.
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